Commentary Magazine


Homosexuality

To the Editor:

Marjorie Rosenberg is, in the main, to be commended for her article, “Inventing the Homosexual” [December 1987]. She convincingly describes the process whereby the homosexual community proclaimed itself a politically oppressed minority and proceeded, amid the feverish, intimidating atmosphere of the late 1960′s, with the help of some pseudo-scientific research, to induce the moral and scientific collapse of the American Psychiatric Association. Mrs. Rosenberg’s article comes as welcome support of those of us who have been concerned about the social repercussions of this collapse, particularly on the campuses of liberal universities where a similar readiness to appease homosexual militants has been visible.

Mrs. Rosenberg is on firm ground as she analyzes events from the Kinsey report of 1948 to the present. But in order to reach this ground the reader must wade through four introductory paragraphs which are a morass of confusion and purple prose as Mrs. Rosenberg purports to sketch the history of homosexuality in Western culture. Apparently she believes it was late 19th-century science, and in particular psychoanalysis, which “invented the homosexual.” Prior to that time there was no such thing as “the homosexual” in the sense of a discrete subculture, but only occasional homosexual “behavior,” exercised as a moral choice, or a manifestation of free will, by individual humans—until Freud and his allies rounded them all up into the same scientific corral. We are to believe that the homosexuals did not self-consciously identify themselves as such until psychiatry, and in particular Freud, did so.

This is a formulation which turns reality upside down in the same dizzying manner Mrs. Rosenberg aptly perceives in the arguments offered by homosexual polemicists. Surely the most casual scanning of history will discern a self-conscious homosexual subculture in every society throughout Western history, whether feared as an abomination by Judeo-Christians or idealized by pagans or tolerated with some admixture of these two attitudes. Freud replaced these stereotypical views with a sophisticated and humane scientific approach, one which permits distinctions to be made among complex behaviors. Thus his contribution was precisely the opposite of that attributed to him by Mrs. Rosenberg. “Psychoanalytic research,” he wrote in the Three Essays on Sexuality (1915), “is most decidedly opposed to any attempt at separating off homosexuals from the rest of mankind as a group of special character.”

Indeed, Mrs. Rosenberg seems to go out of her way to repeat, using the most florid prose, the popular stereotypes and caricatures of psychoanalysis, as, for example, her reference to “the psychoanalytic vendetta against mothers.” Our favorite sample of purple-prose history, though, runs as follows: “As 19th-century physics rendered solid objects into millions of dancing electrons, and Impressionist painters broke up a landscape into particles of refracted light and shade, so Freud—equally atomistic—reduced his patients to the details of their sexual histories.”

Apart from the triplicate damage done to art, physics, and psychoanalysis by this wholesale conflation, surely we can hope for more from a practicing psychotherapist than the repetition of the familiar canard that Freud reduces everything to sex. For refutation we refer the reader to any of Freud’s case histories. Not only psychoanalysis but perceptive cultural critics from Lionel Trilling to Harold Bloom have repeatedly pointed out the depth, complexity, and subtlety of Freud’s psychology. Three minutes’ thought by Mrs. Rosenberg would have sufficed to dispel this egregious cant. However, as A.E. Housman once remarked, “thought is irksome, and three minutes is a long time.” . . .

By so introducing her article on homosexuality, Mrs. Rosenberg commits a disastrous error for a polemicist: she fails to distinguish supporting from opposing arguments and so totters on the brink of intellectual incoherence. Fortunately, she regains her footing sufficiently to make some excellent points about the absurdities of much current thinking on homosexuality.

Stephen M. Rittenberg, M.D.
Herbert M. Wyman, M.D.

New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . Marjorie Rosenberg begins her article by correctly pointing out that there is something fundamentally misguided in categorizing people as homosexual. Even though this categorization is largely due to 19th-century physicians who wished to pathologize homosexuality (see Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality Vol. 1, Part 1, Chapter 2), it is nowadays, according to Mrs. Rosenberg, a tool used by those who wish to legitimate homosexuality. Despite the fact that many gay-rights activists promote the notion of “gay identity,” I think Mrs. Rosenberg has failed to understand the primary function of homosexual categorization or labeling. Contrary to her claim, it actually works to discourage homosexuality, as is explained in Mary Mcintosh’s article “The Homosexual Role” (Social Problems, vol. 16, 1968). According to Mcintosh, homosexual labeling serves two functions:

In the first place it helps provide a clear-cut, publicized, and recognizable threshold between permissible and impermissible behavior. This means that people cannot so easily drift into deviant behavior. Their first moves in a deviant direction immediately raise the question of a total move into a deviant role with all the sanctions that this is likely to elicit. Secondly, the labeling serves to segregate the deviants from others and this means that their deviant practices and self-justifications for these practices are contained within a relatively narrow group. The creation of a specialized, despised, and punished role of homosexual keeps the bulk of society clean in rather the same way that the similar treatment of criminals helps keep the rest of society law-abiding.

This may help explain an inconsistency in Mrs. Rosenberg’s own article. If she questions the legitimacy of the homosexual label, one would expect her to refrain from describing people as “homosexual.” But, in fact, she frequently refers to “homosexuals,” blaming them for AIDS as well as the disintegration of Western civilization. The fact is, Mrs. Rosenberg’s insight into psychotherapy, limited though it may be, has brought her to the correct realization that no one is homosexual, but her political agenda impels her to lapse back into the conventional way of speaking. By excoriating those perceived as homosexual or subjecting them to legal penalties, the rest of us are frightened into hiding our natural homosexual feelings. This explains why Mrs. Rosenberg continues to label people “homosexual” while holding them up to ridicule.

It is not healthy to quarantine the expression of homosexual feelings to a dark corner of society. Homosexuality must be integrated into society. Unfortunately, many believe that the best way to achieve this aim is by fostering a sense of “gay identity” among certain individuals. I strongly disagree. “Gay identity” is simply another form, albeit a relatively benign form, of the quarantine which removes the expression of homoerotic feelings from mainstream society. It must be made plain to all that, whether we choose to act on them or not, homosexual and heterosexual feelings are natural for everyone. They are natural by virtue of their very commonness. Homosexuality, while not procreative, does serve sexuality’s other natural function: strengthening social bonds by bringing people together.

It is a black mark upon Western civilization that homosexuality has been so punitively suppressed, crippling its natural function. In the past two thousand years it has devolved from an accepted form of love . . . to a clandestine act shrouded in anonymity and fear. Pseudo-moralists such as Mrs. Rosenberg have been to blame all along. Her article’s thinly disguised political agenda is an attempt to worsen a social climate in which a man can already lose his job, his social status, and even his life as a result of having an affair with another man. The irrationality and brutish immorality of such an attitude should be obvious. . . .

John H. Roe
New York City

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To the Editor:

As an attorney, it is my profession to formulate issues, present discussion, and leave it to judges and juries to render verdicts. Thus, I shall not render a verdict on “Inventing the Homosexual,” but instead pose the following issue:

What, if any, is the interrelationship between the defense mechanism of denial and the desire of some people to see homosexuality as a matter of choice?

Denial is the defense mechanism whereby an individual substitutes a false belief for reality. This denial can relate to an inner reality or an external reality (based on The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense: The Writing of Anna Freud, 1966).

When homosexuality is characterized as a matter of choice, then a person threatened by internal homosexual impulses can deny the implication of these impulses by saying that since he has never acted the homosexual, he is not a homosexual.

In Aristotelian terms, a person beset with inner homosexual desires can reason: All homosexuals choose to perform homosexual acts. I choose not to perform homosexual acts. Therefore, I am not a homosexual.

If, on the other hand, homosexuality is not a matter of choice but is a matter of condition, then the Aristotelian logic fails. The premise “some homosexuals perform homosexual acts and some do not” provides a person no basis to argue that he is not a homosexual. Abstaining from homosexual acts proves nothing. He may be a homosexual who does not reveal his true sexual orientation by his outward conduct.

Thus, it is possible that some people argue that homosexuality is a matter of moral choice not because science supports this viewpoint but because it is a cornerstone in their own personal denial of a painful inner reality. As long as they can control their outward conduct, they can deny their inner orientation.

Whether this is true in any particular case is a conclusion that must be reached separately for each individual.

Richard MacNaughton
Beverly Hills, California

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To the Editor:

. . . Marjorie Rosenberg bases her attack on gay identity on the idea of choice. She will not accept the notion that, for many homosexuals, sexual orientation is either innate or so deeply ingrained in their personality as to be immutable. Thus, for her, any homosexual demand for social protection (or even recognition) is unreasonable. What Mrs. Rosenberg fails to see is that even if homosexuality were “chosen,” that would not serve to make it any more “invented” than the concept of religious affiliation. Couldn’t Spanish Jews have chosen to abandon their faith to escape the Inquisition? Couldn’t the Huguenots of France have done the same? What makes homosexuality any less valid as the basis for a social identity, except Mrs. Rosenberg’s prejudice against it? Indeed, Mrs. Rosenberg destroys her own dispassionate façade when she states, “lesbians have impinged far less on the general society than have homosexual men. . . .” Obviously, gay men are objectionable to her because they impinge on society, unlike their better-behaved lesbian sisters.

Because Mrs. Rosenberg fails to defend her stance that identity cannot be based on sexual orientation, she imposes on her readers her own moral objection to the fact that gay men constitute a vibrant, visible community. Ironically, the Nazis found Jews and homosexuals equally illegitimate as members of society. Would Mrs. Rosenberg have her readers forget those who perished in concentration camps wearing pink triangles because they were somehow less guiltless than those who wore yellow Stars of David?

Try as she might to deny the existence of the homosexual as a social type, Mrs. Rosenberg cannot help singling out “homosexuals” as the villains attempting to smash tradition and moral order. Who are these homosexuals if they are not members of a bona-fide social-minority group? And when the Justice Department reports a rise in “hate crimes” against blacks, Jews, and homosexuals, would Mrs. Rosenberg deny that young punks who go “queer-bashing” are, in fact, victimizing social minorities? True, homosexuality as a distinguishing character trait is a relatively modern Western phenomenon, but this does not render it less tenable than any other social construct such as Hispanic, fundamentalist, or Jew. In the Soviet Union, anti-Semitic propaganda takes much the same tack as the one Mrs. Rosenberg uses against gay men. The Soviets claim that Jewish nationalism is an invention of racist Western Zionists trying to subvert the socialist system. Mrs. Rosenberg’s argument that the gay-rights movement is the creation of hedonistic radicals attempting to overturn the established precepts of the psychiatric profession and of Western culture has a frighteningly similar ring.

The fortunate, unalterable historical fact is that gay men and lesbians, despite the differences among them, identify with one another as members of the same oppressed social group. They have published books, legal briefs, record albums, and films that will serve to preserve and protect their heritage from those such as Marjorie Rosenberg who would disparage and deny them. . . .

Rudolf Gaudio
New York City

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To the Editor:

“Inventing the Homosexual” might more appropriately have been titled “Justifying the Homophobe.” Marjorie Rosenberg is identified only as a psychotherapist in private practice. The nature of her assessment of the various studies on homosexuality, however, leaves those trained in scientific method uncertain as to whether she feels bound by the principles of this method. Certainly research in the field of the behavioral and social sciences, as in many others, is often sloppy, advocatory, and even fabricated. Critiques, however, have a special obligation to scholarly responsibility.

For example, as part of her review of the history of this controversy, she treats the issue of homosexuality as if it were simply a matter of moral choice or free will on the part of its practitioners. And she deplores the “democratic” vote by the members of the American Psychiatric Association to depathologize homosexuality, in its revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders, which she sees as the result of political pressures subverting the process of making responsible judgments. It is true that there is much to criticize in the methods of deciding what is a diagnosable condition, and this applies to many other psychiatrically recognized entities as well. But the fact is that neither the “free-will” theory nor the earlier classification of homosexuality-as-pathology enjoyed the scientific justification which she appears to imply they had previously been accorded.

Mrs. Rosenberg then seeks to dismantle the research—both its methodology and its findings, to which she obviously objects—that seriously questioned both stereotypical thinking among laymen and a priori diagnostic categories within the profession. This she does by attacking Evelyn Hooker’s pioneering work, in toto, and invoking . . . the Kinsey studies on an as-needed basis. Contrary to Mrs. Rosenberg’s misreading of aim and process, Hooker’s research was enthusiastically supported by her colleagues at UCLA and elsewhere, none of whom, to my knowledge, had either homosexual/anti-homosexual proclivities or sociopolitical agendas. That this might be equally true of Mrs. Rosenberg has yet to be established. The author criticizes Hooker for removing subjects with known psychopathology from her homosexual group; but she followed precisely the same procedure with her heterosexual sample, and any other course would have tainted her study.

In addition, Mrs. Rosenberg incorrectly characterizes the psycho-diagnostic tools employed by Hooker as “unreliable,” a judgment at widest variance with that of most practitioners in the field. She further faults Hooker for having had the support of certain homosexual groups, from many of which she was able to obtain subjects not readily available elsewhere; perhaps, in retrospect, Mrs. Rosenberg would have liked Hooker to obtain “representative samples” from other sources, which would have been equally criticizable. Mrs. Rosenberg fails to mention that Hooker had similar backing from heterosexual groups. Science has never deemed it valid to dilute objective findings merely because support was forthcoming from groups or individuals objected to by critics who might be displeased by either the efforts or the results of experimental investigations. . . .

She also cites Abram Kardiner’s protest against what she calls a “narrow victory” (58 percent) on the homosexuality-as-pathology issue; political and social observers would hardly designate this kind of majority as “narrow.” Perhaps as an advocate rather than an objective reporter or investigator with evidence of her own, Mrs. Rosenberg may be excused for failing to cite other approving “authorities” (e.g., Marmor, Morin) or additional supporting studies. Certainly in support of her own contentions she ought to have adduced more evidentiary data. . . .

In the end, the author appears eager to perceive all homosexuals (or scientists whom she feels to be their ill-advised or sinisterly motivated advocates) as “hav[ing] propagandized their way” into social acceptance. In this she seems to contradict her assertion that homosexuals ought not to be accorded a separate status, which sounds ominously like a return to the time when the condition was one that “dared not speak its name.” . . .

Whether . . . Mrs. Rosenberg’s strangely reasoned attack on rigorous research [is] . . . pseudo-persuasive rhetoric rather than sound psychotherapeutic theory or practice will have to be left to the reader to decide. . . .

Leonard B. Olinger, Ph.D.
Psychological Center of Beverly Hills
Beverly Hills, California

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To the Editor:

. . . I am a gay man. I am not promiscuous, a disseminator of the AIDS virus, a coprophiliac, or interested in “fist-fucking.” I think historically homosexuality has been a part of every culture, whether ignored, repressed, or given expression. Sexuality is not an either/or phenomenon; there is a range from homosexuality to bisexuality to heterosexuality. And men and women have varying responses to their exploration of their sexuality, as Mrs. Rosenberg herself notes in pointing out the difference between male homosexuals and lesbians in terms of their visibility in the popular culture.

As a gay man I have experienced much less psychological stress and trauma regarding my own sexuality than I have encountered in the oppression and hostility toward my sexuality I have felt in the culture and from people like Marjorie Rosenberg. I would like to hear her response to how I have “impinged . . . on general society” and how “the family becomes the ultimate victim” in my preference for a sexual partner. If by this she means the (usual) absence of children in gay relationships, are heterosexuals who do not have children as “threatening”? And what about the fact that many gays and lesbians want to, and are, raising children? And also that typically in the adoptive process gays and lesbians are discriminated against as possible parents? . . .

Joseph Salack
Logan, Utah

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To the Editor:

Marjorie Rosenberg informs us that the last thirty years have seen the creation of “a male homosexual culture equaled in its openness and visibility only by that of classical Greece.” Democratic government too has existed only in the past 200 years and in ancient Greece; nevertheless, I assume that Mrs. Rosenberg is not opposed to democracy.

The invention of the homosexual, to use Mrs. Rosenberg’s terminology, absolves “its object from the possibility of choice,” whereas previously “one had been free to choose, and, if one were male, to choose on each occasion, how to conduct one’s sexual life.” Not quite. What this “invention” does is to recognize that behavior may be a question of choice, but sexual desire is not. Homosexual men do not engage in homosexual behavior simply to annoy Mrs. Rosenberg; they do so (in the face of death from AIDS) for some of the same reasons that others engage in heterosexual behavior: to express their love, to be at peace with their souls, and to rejoice in the splendor of the creation.

Mrs. Rosenberg is certainly correct that 19th-century psychiatry and 20th-century activism have led to increasing acceptance of homosexuality. This is no reason to despair; rather, it is evidence of the expansion of democracy and the vitality of our political institutions.

George Jochnowitz
New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . Marjorie Rosenberg draws a distinction between lesbians and homosexual men regarding the separation of sex and affection, attributing distinctive “communal intellectual and artistic activity” to lesbians. This is far from the truth. There is a sizable percentage of homosexual men (much larger than the 10 percent of “happy homosexuals” referred to in the 1978 Kinsey Institute report) who maintain committed, monogamous, enduring love relationships and are involved extensively in the arts and intellectual pursuits.

I recommend that Mrs. Rosenberg take a closer look at the real gay community. There is considerably more to it than one learns from biased media or the equally biased and/or inadequate sources (both gay and straight) that she cites in her article. I doubt if any scientifically sound analysis of the real scene could be successfully conducted within today’s homophobic society: the majority of gay men and women remain closeted for obvious reasons.

Robert Lagerstrom
New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . On its own, Michael A. Fumento’s superb “AIDS: Are Heterosexuals at Risk?” [November 1987] stands as a healthy antidote to much of the hysterical heterosexual reaction to the AIDS crisis, and restores badly needed perspective, de-politicizing and de-emotionalizing a tragic issue about which clear-sighted analysis is desperately required. . . .

But to follow this with Marjorie Rosenberg’s “Inventing the Homosexual,” which appears superficially to be an ad hominem broadside on homosexuality, smacks of a kind of social McCarthyism that is inconsistent with the liberal spirit that COMMENTARY . . . has always represented.

Frederic Wile
New York City

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To the Editor:

With regard to Marjorie Rosenberg’s intriguing article: it is a curious fact that in the ideology of the modern Left, nearly every aspect of gender identity, sex roles, and sexual desire is said to be a product of “culture.” Homosexuality, and only homosexuality, is held to be biologically determined.

Nicholas Davidson
New York City

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Marjorie Rosenberg writes:

My inquiry into the elevation of homosexual behavior and homosexual proclivity to the status of a total social identity—a process which began about a century ago—requires the resurrection of distinctions which the process itself has all but obliterated. Stephen M. Rittenberg and Herbert M. Wyman are utterly uncomprehending of these distinctions and thus confuse the historic presence of subcultures where homosexual activity was allowed or encouraged with the relatively recent adoption of homosexual preference as a basis for identity. It might be interjected here that only an economic system which trivializes work and provides unprecedented leisure could support such an identity for large numbers of people.

Despite their failure to distinguish between act and self-definition, Drs. Rittenberg and Wyman do perceive, with aggrieved hypersensitivity, my barely hinted view that psychoanalytic theory has contributed significantly, although certainly not purposively, to the development of a conception of homosexual identity and to the present public homosexual culture. Freud’s insistence on the inherent bisexuality of all humans, a theory based on confused borrowings from the faulty biology of his time, and his conceptions of repression and denial have provided intellectual encouragement and justification for recourse to homosexual behavior.

John H. Roe’s letter provides a typical unacknowledged instance of the validation of homosexuality by reference to Freud’s mistaken notion of bisexuality, while Richard MacNaughton’s simplistic explanation of denial is yet another illustration of the muddling effect of Freudian theory. Mr. MacNaughton announces that many who control their own conduct are denying an “inner orientation” and thus, he points out, those of us who do not practice homosexuality are all suspect of wanting to. Equally, by this reasoning, those of us who do not engage in incest or have not become drug addicts, child molesters, or murderers, could be harboring comparably insistent “inner orientations.” Absurd as is this refusal to be satisfied with the distinction between act and conjectured unconscious motive, Freud’s deep pessimism about human nature blurred the distinction, and contemporary thought—firmly grounded in the idea of the original sin of the unconscious—has further negated realistic discrimination. But the contribution of Freudian thought to the culture of homosexuality is, of course, a subject for an essay in itself.

Rudolf Gaudio’s question: what makes homosexuality any less valid as a basis for social identity than religious faith couldn’t be easier to answer but inspires depression that it is asked. Religion involves thinking about the nature of the universe, the meaning of life and death, and the possibility of eternity—issues of infinitely greater significance than the acting out of sexual preference, Mr. Gaudio.

Leonard B. Olinger, a psychologist, unsurprisingly defends psychologist Evelyn Hooker, as Drs. Rittenberg and Wyman defend psychoanalytic doctrine. I know that Hooker’s research was enthusiastically supported: it was, in fact, politically demanded, and not just by homosexuals but by the spirit of the time. The trouble with Hooker’s research, apart from the considerations I mentioned in my article, is that it is impenetrably tautological. Beginning with the assumption that homosexuality itself is not a problem and eliminating from her study homosexuals with other obvious personality disturbances, Hooker went on to compare her sample with heterosexuals who were likewise free of grossly discernible difficulties. Presto! Homosexuals and heterosexuals are declared to show no significant differences of adjustment.

I should note that Mr. Olinger, in his long critical letter, several times puts quotation marks around words or phrases, giving the impression that he is quoting me—which he is not, in any instance, doing. Further, it is hard to take seriously, as an attempt at intellectual clarification, a letter which begins with the hurling of the propagandistic epithet, “homophobe.”

Joseph Salack invites commendation for his personal adjustment, as though I had not consistently stressed the great range of homosexual behavior as a major objection to the contemporary sinking of all such differences in the cause of homosexual activism.

To George Jochnowitz I would say that the increasing acceptance of homosexual behavior owes much more to our economic system than to our political institutions—high individual consumption being a goal which no longer requires the family for its realization. The earlier stages of capitalism, dependent on the productive capacity of the family unit and lacking a superfluity of material goods, could not tolerate a widespread homosexual culture.

To return to Mr. Roe: his reference to a twenty-year-old article as proof that a homosexual identity is actually discouraged by homosexual “labeling” discounts the fact that these last twenty years have given overwhelming evidence that the author of the article was wrong. Not only has the number of young males who seek the categorization vastly increased (ask any woman in her twenties or thirties about the frequency of her encounters with male homosexuality and compare her experiences with her mother’s at the same age), but far from providing thresholds of permissible behavior, such categorization has encouraged the rejection of all societal restraints on sex, as the promiscuity which fostered the transmission of AIDS testifies.

The above letters are, I think, notable for their attribution of psychological and political motivation as a substitute for reasoned argument, and for their tone of personal anger. Nicholas Davidson’s is the single exception, and he raises perhaps the most important question of all in calling to our attention the increasing tendency in the last few years to assert that homosexuality is biologically determined. Against all evidence to the contrary, this claim is presented as a way of further removing those who engage in homosexuality from responsibility for their choice.

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