...Michel Foucault, an unexpected ally, details the pedigree of sexual orientation in his History of Sexuality. Whereas “sodomy” had long identified a class of actions, suddenly for the first time, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the term “homosexual” appeared alongside it. This European neologism was used in a way that would have struck previous generations as a plain category mistake, designating not actions, but people—and so also with its counterpart and foil “heterosexual.”
Psychiatrists and legislators of the mid- to late-1800s, Foucault recounts, rejected the classical convention in which the “perpetrator” of sodomitical acts was “nothing more than the juridical subject of them.” With secular society rendering classical religious beliefs publicly illegitimate, pseudoscience stepped in and replaced religion as the moral foundation for venereal norms. To achieve secular sexual social stability, the medical experts crafted what Foucault describes as “a natural order of disorder.”
“The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage,” “a type of life,” “a morphology,” Foucault writes. This perverted psychiatric identity, elevated to the status of a mutant “life form” in order to safeguard polite society against its disgusting depravities, swallowed up the entire character of the afflicted: “Nothing that went into [the homosexual’s] total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle.”
The imprudent aristocrats encouraging these medical innovations changed the measure of public morality, substituting religiously colored human nature with the secularly safer option of individual passion. In doing so, they were forced also to trade the robust natural law tradition for the recently constructed standard of “psychiatric normality,” with “heterosexuality” serving as the new normal for human sexuality. Such a vague standard of normality, unsurprisingly, offered far flimsier support for sexual ethics than did the classical natural law tradition.
But emphasizing this new standard did succeed in cementing these categories of hetero- and homosexuality in the popular imagination. “Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality,” Foucault writes, “when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.” Sexual orientation, then, is nothing more than a fragile social construct, and one constructed terribly recently.
While our popular culture has not caught up— yet—the queer theorists increasingly calling the shots at the elite level already agree with Foucault on this point. Such thinkers echo Gore Vidal’s LGBT-heretical line: “Actually, there is no such thing as a homosexual person, any more than there is such a thing as a heterosexual person.” True, the firm natural division between the two identities has proven useful to the “gay rights” activists on the ground, and not least of all for the civil-rights-era ethos such power dynamics conjure up. But most queer theorists—and, for that matter, most academics throughout the humanities and the social/behavioral disciplines today—will readily concede that such distinctions are fledgling constructs and not much more.
Many in this camp aim to expose the counterfeit credentials of sexual orientation and, taking a page from Nietzsche, to genealogically explain it away once and for all.