Skip to content

The Life and Death of Modern Homosexuality

Abolish the capitalist forces that produced “gay people”

Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System by Christopher Chitty. Duke University Press, 240 pages.

Ever since the modern invention of homosexuality, many homosexuals have been profoundly invested in claiming that homosexuality is not a modern invention, or even an invention at all. In some sense, they’re right: congealment is probably a better term for the consolidation of wildly disparate homoerotic impulses, socioeconomic structures, and medical discourses under the tidy term “homosexual” in the late nineteenth century. That term has survived, with an occasional costume change, ever since. Nevertheless, at every appearance, the people named by it have been cast by the right as some kind of utterly novel alien invasion hellbent on dissolving the nuclear family in a cauldron of perversion.

In response, many said people have looked to the past for proof that they’re not the first such beings to land on Earth. See, some of them say, pointing to Michelangelo or Frederick The Great, look! We’re not aliens! We’re Great Men. Let’s call this Queer History One. The more enlightened look to patterns of behavior, finding evidence of precolonial or precapitalist queer lifeworlds subdued and oppressed by Great Men (i.e., capitalist European heteropatriarchs). We’re not aliens; we have always existed in some form, they say, and the system that screwed us then is the system that’s screwing us today. Let’s call this Queer History Two. Both versions are linked to the trope that we queers are “born this way,” an attempt to fight back against the charge that queer and trans subjectivities are a “lifestyle choice” with the assertion that our sexual identities are written into our DNA. The claim that homosexuality is part of “our” genes is itself a kind of historicizing claim: the first histories, after all, are written in our cells, in our genetics and in our epigenetics; in what, and in how, our bodies and sexualities become. All this makes the project of doing a history of queer subjectivities very complicated. The uncomfortable truth is that people with same-sex romantic and sexual impulses have been bosses and workers, racialized and racist, queens and street queens, and that very few of us have ever fully or comfortably inhabited today’s “gay” or “queer” or “trans” subjectivities. But histories are always incomplete, astral projections of unrecoverable pasts, and so all of us who do queer history choose only some of our ancestors, and their politics and lifeworlds, to endorse or critique or elide.

It becomes difficult to imagine same-sex desire as opposed to capitalism, whiteness, and nationalism when those institutions and social relations now welcome it with open arms.

Any history of the field is thus a history of this dialectic between Queer History One and Queer History Two. The earliest progressive sexologists of the late nineteenth century, fighting back against psychiatrists and doctors who considered homosexuality and gender “inversion” pathological, offered counterexamples both from history and, problematically, from “primitive” peoples seen as living examples of previous “stages” of human development. They argued that same-sex eros and gender nonconformity were normal variations of human behavior. Their masculinist counterparts looked instead to great historical heroes: homosexual and homosocial behavior, they thought, could liberate heroism and reenchant modernity. Sometimes this masculinist project was oriented toward libertarian socialism, with activists like Edward Carpenter imagining a Whitmanesque bearded brotherhood of utopian democracy; other times, taking root in German Männerbund associations, it imagined Grecian heroes as proto-Aryan figures liberated from evil Jewish and feminine influence. (At that time, there was no lesbian-nationalist equivalent). Despite the sometimes bitter battles between Queer Histories One and Two, their arguments were in one fundamental way similar: they both constructed a history of honor in which one could, in the present day, take pride.

During gay liberation’s 1970s heyday, focus shifted to the birth of contemporary gender and sexuality. In the essay “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” John D’Emilio, who had been a member of a reading group in New York City called the Gay Socialist Action Project, argued against what he called “the myth of the eternal homosexual,” claiming that only the rise of wage labor enabled men (and, later, women) to leave home and begin to inhabit gay sexual identities. In colonial New England, where households functioned as self-sufficient economic units dependent on the labor of many offspring, sex was yoked to procreation and procreation to marriage: “The Puritans,” writes D’Emilio, “did not celebrate heterosexuality but rather marriage; they condemned all sexual expression outside the marriage bond.” Under industrialization, however, as men and women were drawn into the labor market, production became more socialized and the family ceased to be a self-sufficient economic unit. As a result, sexuality could be “released,” to use D’Emilio’s verb, from the imperative to procreate: instead of needing to make many children in order to help with the all-consuming labor of continuing life, sexual expression could become a way of expressing yourself through an identity, whether heterosexual or homosexual. “Only when individuals began to make their living through wage labor, instead of as parts of an interdependent family unit,” D’Emilio argues, “was it possible for homosexual desire to coalesce into a personal identity.” The village sodomite, confronted with the new idea that sex wasn’t something you did with the wife to maintain the community and with the neighbor for fun but was instead meant to be an expression of your personhood, moved to the city and became a homosexual.

Even more influential was the model offered by the French theorist Michel Foucault, who, as part of a broader theoretical project of arguing for an understanding of power more diffuse and decentralized than traditional Marxist models, claimed that the regulation of sexuality by late-nineteenth century doctors didn’t repress it, but in fact helped create it. Sexuality itself, he argued––the institution by which we consider our sexual acts to be part of a coherent identity––was one of the crucial forms of modern social control. Far from not talking about sex, he pointed out, Victorians talked about little else: filthy, perverted sex obsessed them. Continuing to talk about it in the context of the sexual liberation movement represented—and by implication, continues to represent—an extension of that discourse, not a radical break from it.

While some academics (like John Boswell and Terry Castle) spent years arguing, with ever-decreasing success, that something like the contemporary “gay” or “lesbian” had always existed in relatively similar ways, “constructionist” models like those offered by Foucault and D’Emilio have become dominant in today’s academic histories about gay, lesbian, and trans lives. In the mainstream, however, it’s almost the reverse. If in the 1970s and 1980s there was a vibrant public activist culture in which both Queer History One and Two were debated, today most gay and lesbian people firmly rely on the former. The wages of nationalism are generous, and Queer History One’s story—you have always existed, you have dignity because you are like Great Men/Women—has proven to be an easier position from which to argue for the dispensation of civil rights and protections from the state. It’s unsurprising that this has become the mass-market narrative about homosexuality in the contemporary West: we’re born this way, and we always have been. Recognize us, and we’ll marry, pay taxes, and serve in the military. It becomes difficult to imagine same-sex desire as opposed to capitalism, whiteness, and nationalism when those institutions and social relations now welcome it with open arms. It is no accident that working-class, Black, and trans queer activists and academics (from established names in trans and queer of color critique like Susan Stryker and Jose Esteban Muñoz to current PhD students and early-career scholars like Michelle Esther O’Brien and Blu Buchanan) have offered many of the most penetrating contemporary critiques of both racial capitalism and mainstream gay and lesbian organizing.

Maybe the problem is precisely the ease with which we assume that there is a queer “us.”

Queer History Two’s defense mechanism has been to decry normativity: to assimilate into these institutions, some queer radicals and most queer theorists have argued, is to not be queer at all. Yes, they insist, we are aliens! The most blinkered form of analysis based on normativity would see the trust-fund faggot still high on ecstasy at the anarchist warehouse rave at nine a.m. on a Sunday morning as more “radical” than the married working-class lesbian clocking in every morning at the same time to a Walmart in the suburbs.[*] This rubric, as Holly Lewis and others have pointed out, fails by privileging the performance of radical acts over the analysis of structures. In her excellent monograph The Politics of Everybody, Lewis goes back to one of the foundational narratives of “homonormativity:” the eviction of working-class Black queer youth from the Christopher Street Piers in New York City by gay and lesbian property and business owners in the mid-1990s, which influential queer theorists attributed to those youths’ flamboyant and non-normative gender presentation. “I see no evidence,” Lewis writes, “that this is a case of a gay elite patrolling queer identity. Instead, I see business owners expelling non-customers. I see landlords concerned with property value. I see the racist assumption that Black youth are dangerous . . . Class dynamics are rewritten as a problem of affect.”

Maybe the problem is precisely the ease with which we assume that there is a queer “us”— this idea, of a united queer identity forged in the crucible of decades or centuries of homophobia, often lurks behind even those histories that insist that homosexuality is a modern invention. It’s easy to understand that the structural position of a Black trans woman experiencing homelessness or a working-class Native lesbian are not the same as those of a white gay male corporate lawyer, no matter how much that movement’s nonprofit organs might want to feature the former two in ad campaigns for policy proposals that mostly benefit the latter. It is difficult to write queer histories that don’t smuggle those assumptions in the back door, but there are many reasons to talk about sexuality in history as a rich site of identity formation, control, and meaning-making. Throwing it out entirely won’t do.

Christopher Chitty’s Sexual Hegemony addresses itself to this contradiction. It is major, a synthesis of the socialist and Foucauldian understandings of the birth of contemporary homosexuality which tracks the specific relationships between one form of same-sex behavior (sodomy) and class politics across the transition to capitalism in the Global North. The history of homosexualities is presented as contingent on political economy and class struggle; in the book’s introduction, Christopher Nealon describes the perspective as “an anticapitalist politics that is committed to abolishing the forces that produced ‘gay people.’”

Instead of questioning the extent to which the sodomites in his study deviated from stated social norms, Chitty focuses on “whether and how sexuality outside marriage and property relations congealed into opposition, defiance, or open antagonism toward socially dominant groups and their institutions.” This is a subtle but crucial difference: at certain junctures, and for some people, he points out, deviating from a society’s stated moral and sexual norms has not been particularly revolutionary. Popes have had mistresses without disrupting their sovereignty over the church and its vast wealth; merchants have fucked young men while still using marriage to pass property and title on to their biological sons. Instead of understanding, to use one example from the book, fifteenth-century Florentine sodomites as an identity category unified by buggery and threatened by its repression, he instead teases out the potentially more-important ways in which they were different from each other. For upper-class men who participated in same-sex activity, targeted repression of working-class men allowed their conduct to continue without it fundamentally threatening either their freedom or their class position. It was the working-class men who were punished––and this punishment, along with its constant threat, circumscribed the potentially revolutionary quality of intimate, cross-class contact. Knowing that your lover might be imprisoned, and you definitely won’t be, makes fucking them and then fucking them over all the easier. Punishing only working-class men who have sex with men is not evidence of some kind of blanket phobia of male sexual contact, but evidence of how the regulation of male-male sexual contact can be used to discipline some working-class men.

Chitty binds these detailed analyses into a broad historical narrative, in which he understands conflict over and crackdowns on sodomy as corresponding with the “terminal phases” of Italian, Dutch, British, and American-dominated hegemonies of capitalism from the fifteenth century to today. (This narrative focus on the centers of capitalist power in the early modern and modern eras leads Chitty to focus on the global North, not least as the place where the discourse of “sexuality” itself, and attendant sodomy laws, would be created in a colonialist crucible and then violently exported to much of the global South.) In these terminal phases, a “heightened sense of moral crisis” arose as restorations of power and geopolitical realignments overturned the status quo. Between the fall of the old regime and the birth of the new one, something queer could flourish.

This narrative alone would be an exciting historical intervention. The method is even more so. Chitty calls it “queer realism”—a move from thinking about, as Foucault did, how power shapes sexuality, toward thinking about how sexuality contributes, in different ways, at different places and times, to the exercise of power. Normalcy, Chitty points out, is not some abstract standard; it is “a status . . . which accrues material advantages to those who achieve it or happen to be born into it.” Queerness, for Chitty, signifies the lack of that status—“forms of love and intimacy with a precarious social status outside the institutions of family, property, and couple form.” If D’Emilio taught us how free labor systems helped produce the modern homosexual, and Foucault pointed to the role of sexological discourses in doing the same, Chitty makes the analytic mobile: not content to retell the story of the birth of the modern, he instead provides a way of relating different same-sex forms to one another over time without departing from the important overarching story of developing capitalist accumulation, smuggling contemporary assumptions about sexuality into the past, or smothering our understanding of power in a thick blanket of overidentification. Even histories that have supposedly integrated Foucault’s insights about how sexuality feeds off repression like the mutant weeds that spring up around Chernobyl often, quietly and in the background, assume that some form of homophobia or anti-gay bias, even if in an older and different form, has always existed and shaped same-sex erotic contact. Chitty replaces this with a colder view of ruling class interests, while arguing that same-sex erotic behavior has often been a particular flashpoint for class conflict.

Those of us who inhabit today’s homosexual subjectivities will need to do more than assume that our cocksucking makes us radical.

Chitty’s tragic death by suicide in 2015 was surely an unfathomable personal tragedy for those who knew him. It casts a shadow over this slim and explosive volume, which is composed of material for his PhD dissertation and was pieced together and shepherded through peer review by his friend, the writer Max Fox. Reading a text this provocative and disruptive, one wants to question, to provoke, to challenge, to hear what its writer might have to say next. The task of what to say next has been left up to us. Boswell and Foucault, those mythic representatives of Queer History One and Queer History Two, respectively, were friends: and both of them, too, died untimely deaths, of AIDS-related illness. Like all queer historians, all three wrote histories of the present: arguments for how we might live and organize today. If Boswell was eager to reassure us that stable gay identities awaited us beyond a temporary fog of repression, and Foucault, more wisely, was intent on reminding us of the contingency of those identities, Chitty warns us off assuming that the contradictions that made urban spaces a rich site of conflict over sexuality will necessarily continue into the present. “It is hard,” Chitty writes near the end of the book, “to imagine that homosexuality will provide the basis for any future politicization of sex. It seems far more likely that any future politicization . . . will be part of a wider social movement responding to worsening conditions of life, further cuts to public sector spending, and hostility towards the ruling elite.” Queer and antiracist histories of the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic remind us that the existence of effective medical tools to fight a pandemic does not actually make the pandemic go away under racial capitalism, and as we look forward to the world after the first phase of this pandemic, we will face conflicts over austerity and access to treatment. “How the precarity of some bodies will link up with that of others in future struggles,” Chitty writes, “is difficult to predict.”

Who could look, today, at the financial capitals of London or New York and assume that homophobia is central to the function of our late-capitalist world system? Even the bigotry against trans people that is becoming ever more a part of right-wing (and centrist-liberal) worldviews often prominently features the idea that trans people (like immigrants) present some apparent “threat” to the sacred and historically fixed figure of the gay man or the lesbian woman, who are apparently being forced by some woke mob to copulate with genitalia to which they are not attracted. The Trump administration couched its attacks on trans people with the public claim that he was the “most pro-gay President in American history,” as his ambassador to Germany and director of national intelligence, the gay man Richard Grenell, claimed on several occasions. Britain’s rabid Tories change health policy to harm trans kids but celebrate the fact that it was under a Tory government that same-sex marriage became the law of the land. Germany’s far-right AfD attacks “gender-gaga” while being led by a lesbian. If in Poland and Hungary far-right leaders still include gays and lesbians in their scapegoating for social instability (not to mention horrifying developments in countries in the Global South where colonial-era sodomy laws imposed by Europe are deployed with ever greater force), this seems more like a hangover than the future—a hangover that the application of well-funded pressure from the United States, the EU, and major corporations is unlikely to resolve.

If the protections won by homosexuals are not fixed in stone, neither does the presumption that queers are now and always have been a monolith get us anywhere politically. Those of us who inhabit today’s homosexual subjectivities will need to do more than assume that our cocksucking makes us radical. Enough with the gay art and politics that pimp out the gay male gaze as a revolutionary act; enough with the shallow performances of allyship, the mumbled and dutiful declarations of solidarity that replace actual engagement with the world and its contradictions. To paraphrase Marx, we do not make our own history, but we do make something out of what we’re given. Resistance is not in anyone’s genetics, but it might just be in our epigenetics. Who are we? Homosexuality is a modern invention, and 150 years later, we’re still arguing about what it means and where it came from, and whether it was invented at all. It is, to quote Andrew Holleran, “like a boarding school in which there are no vacations.” He meant, in the bourgeois faggot literary tradition, to evoke the alternately rough and tender homosocial contacts of the privileged schoolboys, but maybe we can learn more from this simile by thinking about the gardeners and custodians, the cooks and the maids, the townies nearby in underfunded public schools. There are cocksuckers and diesel dykes and people whose gender does not conform to the sex they were assigned at birth among them too. Chitty invites us to burn the boarding school down, and in the ashes, with history as our guide, to build something for everyone.

[*] Correction: An earlier version of this essay included a sentence inaccurately critiquing the ideas of the activist collective “Against Equality.” Their work and writing can be found here.