Rethinking Homosexuality

by Don Browning

Don Browning is professor of religion and psychological studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 11, 1989, pp. 911-916. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


In reviewing David Greenberg’s thorough world history of homosexuality from a sociological point of view, Don Browning explores how Greenberg challenges most current Western beliefs and attitudes, and suggests corrections that must certainly evoke major questions, if not adjustments, by society in general and the religious community in particular.

BOOK REPORT: The Construction of Homosexuality. By David Greenberg. University of Chicago Press, 635 pp, $29.95.


This is the most extensive and thorough world history of homosexuality ever written. Yet it is more accurate to call it a work of sociology than a work of history, for it develops a specific and arresting sociological thesis. David Greenberg argues, against popular opinion, that homosexuality is not a static condition; it is not like being black or white or left-handed. It is not, for the most part, even a deep-seated psychological "orientation."

Greenberg contends that the terms "homosexual," "gay" or "lesbian," are, "strictly speaking, anachronistic." People who continue to use these terms "hold that homosexual behavior is a manifestation of some inner essence, perhaps biological or psychological, is relatively stable over time, and characteristic of a distinct minority of the population." But according to Greenberg's "social constructivist" view, homosexuality is a behavior produced and interpreted in different ways by different societies at different times. Homosexuality is not an essence or condition that some people have and others do not. It is not a minority orientation that, perhaps, 10 percent of the population have and, when they discover their condition, become liberated to conform to their true natures. Applying the sociological theories of Durkheim and Mary Douglas to sexuality, Greenberg argues that homosexual identity is a social label. Social classification both creates the homosexual phenomenon and contains the evaluative frameworks by which it is judged, whether as deviant, tolerable, approvable or admirable.

In evaluating Greenberg's thesis it is important to know that he is a professor of sociology at New York University who specializes in criminology, law and the theory of deviance. He writes this book as a contribution to a more humane understanding of the gay and lesbian phenomenon. Although he is fully aware that the thesis of his book is at odds with the self-interpretation gays and lesbians generally present, he believes his alternative portrait will in the long run be useful to the homosexual movement.

How does Greenberg attempt to prove his thesis? By trotting before the reader a staggering assemblage of examples of how different societies, ancient and modern, have unconsciously encouraged or discouraged various forms and interpretations of homosexual behavior. In the early chapters, Greenberg develops a typology of homosexual relations. The first three types can be found in primitive societies where kinship is central to the social structure. The fourth is found primarily in archaic civilizations.

Transgenerational homosexuality is found in primitive societies where homosexual relations occur between a young male and an older teacher or tribal holy man. Here homosexuality is transitional, part of the initiation into adulthood of the younger male; it comes to an end when the boy is inducted into marriage. Transgender homosexuality occurs in some primitive societies where certain men dress up as women and sometimes provide sexual services. Greenberg believes this form tends to occur in matrilineal societies where women hold considerable power. Egalitarian homosexuality occurs between peers who are relatively equal in age and social power. This occurs among children, to some degree, in most societies. In primitive societies, however, it was a transitional and not lifelong phenomenon--not an exclusive mode of sexual behavior. Greenberg believes that homosexual behavior for many people in primitive societies was a kind of sideline, coexisting more or less freely in people who were predominantly heterosexual as adults.

Transclass homosexuality occurred in more differentiated and hierarchically organized archaic civilizations. Here homosexuality took the form of older, free or wealthy males relating to the young, the weak, the poor or the unfree. Ancient Greek and, to a lesser degree, Roman societies serve as the best examples. In ancient Greece, free men almost universally developed pederastic relations with young boys who were passive and submissive until they matured, got married, and then probably themselves demonstrated their freedom and assertiveness by finding younger, passive sexual partners of the same sex. Greenberg believes these arrangements lasted in ancient Greece until women developed more power, wealth and independence and gradually demanded an end to their husbands' extracurricular sexual activities.

Greenberg suggests that the idea of a stable, lifelong homosexual identity is an invention of modern Western societies. He agrees with the French theorist Michael Foucault that "it was the production and dissemination of a medical discourse in the recent past that gave birth not just to the concept of a homosexual person, but also to homosexuals themselves, and at the same time, to their antitwins, heterosexual persons. In the beginning was the word!"

But the height of homosexual persecution, Greenberg believes, came much earlier, during the Middle Ages -- in part the unintended consequence of the requirement of celibacy for the priesthood of the Catholic Church. With the elimination of heterosexual outlets, same-sex expression was bound to develop. The Catholic Church reacted to homosexuality in both the priesthood and the laity by imposing stricter and stricter penalties. Eventually churches fought for civil punishment of homosexuality, including the death penalty.

In the modern world, such repressive measures gradually weakened. Several forces in modern societies worked not only to liberalize attitudes but to develop the social logics that created both modern homosexual identity and more tolerant attitudes toward it. To grasp how these forces worked, one must understand that Greenberg accepts the anthropological insight, shared by Freudians and most sexologists, that human sexuality is extremely plastic and innately nonspecific with regard to sexual objects. All of us, according to Greenberg, have the capacity

to be sexually attracted to members of the same sex. Whether or not these feelings are labeled as such and organized into overt behaviors and lifelong identities is a result of a wide combination of social and cultural dynamics.

What are some of these social forces and social logics? Urbanization, science, medicine and bureaucracy are among the ones Greenberg discusses most thoroughly. Urbanization erodes the communal guidance of rural and village life and throws young people of the same sex into specialized contacts. Their diffuse sexual feelings may be excited by same-sex contacts, and they may gradually come to label their sexual feelings, and finally even themselves, as homosexual rather than heterosexual.

Science contributes to the development of the modern homosexual identity by inviting people to think in deterministic ways about their feelings: if people sense within themselves homosexual feelings, they are more likely to interpret these feelings as inevitable and as determined by some necessary biological or psychological force. Not only science in general, but the rise of the specialized disciplines of sexology, Darwinist biology, medical psychology and psychoanalysis, have contributed to the development of the homosexual identity. Greenberg's chapter on "The Medicalization of Homosexuality" is a brilliant catalog of the various theories--inheritance, degeneracy, childhood deprivations, masturbation, biological determination--advanced during the 19th and 20th centuries as scientific explanations of homosexuality. Greenberg's point, which others have made as well, is that these specialized disciplines have helped provide the categories, explanations and social attitudes that have contributed to the creation of modern enduring gay and lesbian identities. How many young people today grow up trying to label their subjective sexual feelings somewhere along the continuum of Kinsey's homosexual-bisexual-heterosexual scale? Here, says Greenberg, social science functions as a source of social identity.

Bureaucratization has made its own contribution. It has depersonalized social controls based on family and community ties and has contributed to the continuing negative attitudes that society holds toward homosexuality -- the rationalistic and efficiency-oriented character of modern bureaucracies is thought by most of society to be inconsistent with more diffuse forms of sexual expression that homosexuality suggests to many people.

Greenberg admits that Judaism and early Christianity took a negative view of homosexuality. This view had its roots in the desert God Yahweh's antagonism to sacred male prostitution, which was prevalent in the pagan nature religions that competed with Israel. These attitudes were deepened, Greenberg argues, during the Babylonian exile when Israel was influenced by the extreme antipathy to homosexuality found in Zoroastrianism. It was during this time that the priestly Leviticus codes were formulated. Nowhere in his discussion of ancient Israel or early Christianity does Greenberg deal with theological interpretations of scripture in those traditions.

Greek and Roman societies gradually lost their earlier enthusiasm for homosexuality. Political disappointments in Greek societies led to a new pessimism in Epicurean and Stoic philosophy. A new skepticism about passion arose, a skepticism that eventually culminated in more negative attitudes toward homosexual passion. Later still, as mentioned above, women began to assert their objections to male homosexual practices. One of the disappointments of the book is that this intriguing point about the role of women is emphasized but not sufficiently elaborated. It is also a deficiency that Greenberg tells the story of male homosexuality with little attention to lesbianism

Greenberg is aware that his constructivist perspective may be used against the homosexual movement, but he believes that his first obligation is to the truth. From his perspective, the idea of a static homosexual orientation or essence simply does not hold up against the huge variety of homosexual, bisexual and heterosexual patterns. Not only does Greenberg cover Western societies, but he is constantly making excursions to China, Japan and South America as well. Everywhere he finds significant variations in the prevalence of homosexuality, depending on the social logics of different societies. At one point he indulges in a thought-experiment with reference to certain New Guinea tribes where ritual homosexual practices with young boys are normative.

It is reasonable to suppose that if a bunch of Melanesian infants were to be transported in infancy to the United States and adopted few would seek out the pederastic relationships into which they are inducted in New Guinea, or take younger homosexual partners when they reach maturity. Similarly, American children raised in New Guinea would accommodate themselves to the Melanesian practices.

Greenberg is aware of the comfort that essentialist theories of homosexuality have given the gay and lesbian movements

When heterosexual chauvinists have told homosexuals to change, essentialist theories have provided a ready response: I can't. When parents have sought to bar homosexual teachers from the classroom lest their children (horror of horrors) become homosexual, essentialist theories have provided a seemingly authoritative basis for denying the possibility.

In response to these concerns, Greenberg says,

The present study is concerned only with scientific concerns and cannot make concessions to such opportunistic considerations. It should be pointed out, though, that nothing in the social-constructivist position legitimates the denial of rights . . . Assertive gay liberationists have argued that it may be strategically wiser to concede the possibility that a few students might be influenced to become gay by having an openly gay teacher as a role model, and to say, "So what?"

It is clear that this is a stance that Greenberg endorses. In the nooks and crannies of Greenberg's huge study one can discern this outlook: homosexual and bisexual behavior probably is spreading to larger portions of the society, and this constitutes no basic threat. This horizon of values surrounding and animating Greenberg's book may evoke even deeper controversy than his central thesis.

Greenberg's work challenges the presuppositions of nearly all recent discussions of homosexuality in both Protestant and Catholic churches. Nearly all official statements on homosexuality by these churches in recent years have adopted some version of the essentialist view of homosexuality. It is interesting to think how this has happened in view of the fact that there are articulate intellectuals in both the gay and lesbian communities who have published views similar to Greenberg's. Gay author Dennis Altman has denied the essentialist view and declared that the homosexual movement is a direct continuation of the counterculture's move toward a freer and more inclusive bisexuality (a position similar to the one held by Foucault). This is true, he argues, whether or not individual gays and lesbians recognize it in their own experience. And for some years, certain feminist lesbians have characterized their lesbianism as a political act rather than an orientation. In spite of these testimonies, the churches have for the most part bought variations of the essentialist view put forth by the modern medical and mental health disciplines.

It is difficult to anticipate how the debate will proceed if the churches take seriously Greenberg's argument. His thesis about the social construction of homosexuality can be placed within a variety of ethical and theological frameworks. Some evangelicals will doubtless say that Greenberg's work confirms their deepest fears: homosexuality can grow, and the church's stance against it is essential if the homosexual movement is to be contained. Mainline denominations will be thrown into a state of confusion possibly more profound than the one that now besets them. Accepting Greenberg's thesis might suggest that the new tolerance of these churches, especially the move toward the ordination of homosexuals, is one more way modern societies help create, not just liberate, individuals with gay and lesbian identities. And then there will be those who will argue that the church has no special theological stake in heterosexuality and should open itself to all possible loving sexual combinations, however they may be evolving in modern societies. Regardless of how these debates may develop, it is clear that Greenberg's work challenges assumptions on all sides. The terms of the discussion may never be the same.