What I want to talk about in this, my second post concerning my 1977-78 year at the University of Essex, is what I studied, wrote and published at the time. The research I did there fascinated me and I hope it will interest you too.
Just a heads-up that there won’t be any disco numbers in this post and fewer photos than normal, although West Side Story does get a mention!
When I went to study at Essex, my intention was to better understand the relatively new sociological perspective called social constructionism; to hopefully help me learn why and how we gays were oppressed (as we called it) by the wider society.
My supervisor, Ken Plummer, was at the forefront of applying this theory to the study of homosexuality and I was lucky to be plunged straight into that fresh and exciting world. Thanks to his work and leadership, my research, along with others, was published in the book he edited in the early 80s called The Making of the Modern Homosexual.
How we got to that point and what’s it all about is the subject of this post.
What is this Social Constructionism?
I touched on this topic in my previous post but this time I will defer to Cynthia Vinney who is an expert on making topics with complex intellectual histories understandable – certainly better than I would be able to.
“The theory of social constructionism was introduced in the 1966 book The Social Construction of Reality, by sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman. Berger and Luckman’s ideas were inspired by a number of thinkers, including Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and George Herbert Mead. In particular, Mead’s theory of symbolic interactionism, which suggests that social interaction is responsible for the construction of identity, was highly influential.
“The theory of social constructionism asserts that all meaning is socially created. Social constructs might be so ingrained that they feel natural, but they are not. Instead, they are an invention of a given society and thus do not accurately reflect reality.
“Social constructionism is often placed in contrast with biological determinism. Biological determinism suggests that an individual’s traits and behavior are determined exclusively by biological factors. Social constructionism, on the other hand, emphasizes the influence of environmental factors on human behavior and suggests that relationships among people create reality.” https://www.thoughtco.com/social-constructionism-4586374
What my Gay Left years added to this for me, along with the neo-Marxist sociologists with their concepts of power, social class and control, was that those in power – the gatekeepers of reality – played a pivotal role in determining or constructing what counts as this “natural reality”.
What has social constructionism got to do with homosexuality?
At Essex during this period, a small group of people were beginning to apply this type of sociological perspective to the study of homosexuality – an area previously dominated by disciplines like medicine and psychiatry (which had tended to view homosexuality as a form of deviance, disease or abnormality).
What this newer sociological perspective chose to study was:
- the ways in which society defined homosexuality in different periods
- the ways in which it came to be stigmatised at certain times and not others,
- the ways in which people battled against this stigma and
- the ways in which same sex experiences were always shaped and defined by social processes.
Ken Plummer was a leading advocate of this approach and his seminal book Sexual Stigma in 1975 had led the way. Even earlier, Mary McIntosh, another lecturer at Essex, had suggested that not all societies had a notion of ‘the homosexual’ and only in some societies was there a recognizable ‘homosexual role’.
Historian Jeffrey Weeks made a significant contribution to these developing perspectives when his landmark book Coming Out in 1977 traced the way in which a recognizable homosexual identity had only emerged in Britain from the late 19th century.
These insights were to become a major preoccupation at Essex and I was happy to be thrown into the middle of it all.
If you want to read more about the theoretical issues around the social construction of homosexuality, Ken Plummer wrote an excellent summary in Gay Times in 1989 and here’s a link to it.
Pushing back against the labels
It wasn’t a coincidence that the researchers I’ve mentioned, Mary, Ken and Jeffrey, had all spent time earlier in the decade immersed in the politics of Gay Liberation and its accompanying activism. It certainly must have influenced their thinking, as it did mine. Certainly those of us who spent time in Gay Liberation had this understanding that we had been labelled negatively by powerful and hostile social forces which had medicalized and pathologized us.
But we also had gained the confidence to start pushing back at those labels and to challenge those definitions and begin to define ourselves – to construct our own reality: to be Glad to be Gay; to be Out and Proud; to believe that Gay is Good. The persecution of us had led, in an unexpected and surprising way, to the beginning of our liberation. This point of view allowed us to finally say out loud:
“How dare you! Don’t mess with us. We’re not sick! We’re not bad! We’re not sinful! We’re not criminals! We’re not crazy! We’re not lazy! We’re not psychologically disturbed! We’re not no good! We’re not a social disease! It’s not our bringin’ up-ke.”
Oh dear, I feel that I’m getting dangerously close to breaking into a famous song from West Side Story.
Time for a song
Kidding aside, those Jets were fighting back (well, singing and dancing back) against the many labels that society had pinned on them. Just like we queers were doing in the 70s – and like we still need to do.
My Dissertation – “We Conform More than We Resist”
I needed time to get my head around all these concepts but eventually with a bit of blood, sweat and big help from Ken, my supervisor, I pumped out my dissertation – six months late – The Male Homosexual Subculture: Resistance through Rituals where I applied this thinking to the gay male subculture and how it attempted to protect its members from wider discrimination and prejudice at the same time as challenging society’s norms.
My empirical work involved lots of hanging out in gay bars doing “research”, talking and listening to people. Participant observation, it’s called. Lucky me. Rules about methodologies were looser then – no strict “informed consent” protocols were in place.
I relied heavily on the research that had only recently been carried out at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, led by the inspirational Stuart Hall. Their book on working class youth cultures, Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures In Post-War Britain (1975) , is one of the founding texts of Cultural and Subcultural Studies.
I had begun to notice how the gay male subculture’s practices and rituals, similar to working class youth subcultures, both conformed to and reproduced aspects of the dominant ideologies of the wider society at the same time as resisting and transforming them as both groups devised their own strategies for survival.
Therefore, we can be said to be both rebels and conformists as we attempt to win space inside an oppressive dominant culture. I illustrate this with more detail below.
You can see how it made sense for me to use the title of their book as part of the title of my dissertation: Resistance through Rituals.
That’s not the end of it
I had thought that finishing that dissertation and getting my MA would have been the end of it. But, in 1979, a year after I’d left Colchester and Essex University, Ken Plummer pulled together several colleagues, including Jeffrey Weeks, and social constructionist graduate students of his, like me, for a planning meeting. He wanted us to discuss how our research could be put together into a book that he would edit. I saw this as a huge honour, especially being in the company of these other researchers and lecturers.
Around this time, Ken and Jeffrey had been writing some episodes for the Open University for its Introduction to Sociology course. Their particular units ((D207:1:8) provided texts, cassettes and two TV programmes on “Sexuality and life history”.
When the OU producers heard about our planning meeting, they asked if they could come and take photos of us “sociologists at work” in order to locate this discussion in the wider Essex context. Those units – with these photos – were part of that course that ran for about ten years.
I love the photographs for the memories of our time together but also because they capture a period in time of big collars and smoking in classrooms.
As a result of Ken’s hard work at pulling us all together, the book came out in 1981.
I love that the badges on the cover include all the gay symbols from that era: the lambda, gender symbols and the pink triangle as I had talked about here. You’ll notice that the Pride colours are not there as that symbol was still very new and American and it had not yet crossed the Atlantic.
Here’s the book’s blurb:
“Is the ‘homosexual’ a type of person that has been with us in various guises throughout history? Is he or she simply a ‘being’ that we are slowly discovering and understanding better? Or is the ‘homosexual’ simply an invention of our century? The authors of this original and important new work take this last view and argue that although ‘same-sex’ sexual experiences may have existed throughout history, the notion of the ‘homosexual’ is a peculiarly modern idea, which has profound consequences in the structuring of recent homosexual experiences. The essays in this book take the contemporary construction of the homosexual as their common concern”.
My chapter: Male Dominance and the Gay World
There were theoretical chapters and more empirical ones. We were all attempting to apply a social constructionist perspective on how people’s experiences of being gay/lesbian/trans have been shaped both by the wider society and by our own subcultures.
My chapter was not preoccupied with the emergence of the homosexual category as such but was more concerned with the dynamic relationship between gay male subcultures and mainstream society.
What did I say? It was a reworking of my dissertation (“we’re rebels and we’re conformists at the same time”) but concentrating more specifically on how the gay male subculture clearly replicates patterns of maleness and male dominance but, at the same time, also kicks back and rejects sexism. That is, how is male dominance both reproduced and resisted in the homosexual subculture?
“As gay men, are we simply aping straight society or are we actually monkey-ing with it?” Get it??
To illustrate this idea, I examined four areas of our gay male subculture from that time – the late 70s. Here’s a summary if you want to dig into it:
- Our language…
- Our way of speaking amongst ourselves is often sexist, demeaning and derogatory especially in its depiction of women and effeminate gay men.
- BUT, at the same time, it can mock and ridicule the idea of masculinity and femininity because it plays up gender interchangeability (or gender fluidity as we might say today) using feminine terms for each other like “Miss Priss” or “Drama Queen”, radically challenging society’s norms and expectations of gender roles.
- Our patterns of cruising and casual sex…
- Our sexual experiences with, not infrequently, hundreds of men over our lives, can involve the crudest sexual objectification of others exchanging no names, much less intimacy, in fleeting encounters in saunas, public toilets (cottages) and back rooms; clear sexual objectification.
- BUT, at the same time, it could be experienced as less inhibited and indeed joyful, along with less guilt and a high level of affection – and certainly a radical rejection of a bourgeois definition of sex which verges on puritanism.
- Our clothing styles…
- The look for many gay men during this period switched to a clone/macho man style (jeans, military look, lumberjacks, sportsmen) because we wanted to look more “normal” and conservative, leading some to say “Butch is Back.” We wanted to distance ourselves from the “swish & sweaters” of the generation before us. Therefore the clone look could be said to be a sinister reinforcement of rigid concepts of masculinity and femininity and an embodiment of commercialism, conformism, and vacuity
- BUT, at the same time, that butch look was often tight fitting and sexualized à la Village People and therefore it could be said to be revolutionary and challenging and very different from the macho look of straight men. Macho style is “adjusted”, leading some to say that we play at macho, therefore making a mockery of the traditional gender roles through the use of imitative fantasy.
- “Camping it up” (a very slippery term to define) is a sensibility and creative energy that comes from a perception of the world that is shaped and coloured by our critical distance from it. That is, because we have to lead a double life to avoid stigma, we end up getting to a better understanding of how that world works. Camping it up can be seen as criticizing the hypocrisy, self-deceit and prudery that we have come to know exists in the wider world. It’s a very useful strategy for survival because it helps us to deal with a hostile environment.
- However, Camp can be a double-edged sword:
- It can help us to assert our identity and to combat self-contempt with a playful sensibility. We come to understand that masculinity and femininity are just roles to be donned or shunned at different times. We can have fun with role reversals. It’s playful, satirizing the society that tries to force us to be straight.
- BUT, at the same time, the “funny” wit can be very bitter, nasty and bitchy, (exemplified, for example, in the film Boys in the the Band) a reflection of our self-hatred, leading to minimal change in our role in society.
- My conclusion was that Camp is important and does offer lots of pleasures but it lacks political edge when compared to the liberationist agenda of gay liberation. Andy Medhurst, writing about my chapter, summarized it by saying that “Camp was ameliorative, not transformative.” One makes the best of a bad lot instead of transforming the whole lot.
I ended my chapter with a call to revolution
“Although the language, casual sexual patterns, the styles of clothing and camp itself can be seen as a real struggle to try to work out solutions to the oppressive situations in which homosexual men find themselves, the solutions cannot represent a very significant threat to the dominant culture. To change that situation requires a much more revolutionary attack on the ideological and political institutions of society“.
Of course, a revolution didn’t happen and, in fact, some would certainly argue that we have been completely co-opted into our capitalist society. Nevertheless, significant and major reforms have taken place and we achieved more than we could have imagined. That’s a whole other discussion.
The aftermath to the book’s publication
The Making of the Modern Homosexual had an important impact and the multiple reviews were positive, including ones in New Society and Contemporary Sociology. Don’t be shocked – I still have those two reviews to hand!
Gay News, the most important British gay newspaper at that time, wanted to publish an extract and they chose a section from John Marshall’s chapter about changing conceptions of male homosexuality. But it’s worth stressing that the book was largely aimed at an academic readership and whilst it probably had little impact on the wider community, its chapters were frequently cited in subsequent academic discussions.
Much to my surprise, starting in the 90s, people started telling me that they’d seen bits from my chapter quoted in various academic publications. Being the vain, spendthrift, curious, needy person I am, I bought any book that had even a single mention of my chapter. Most quoted me positively, so that was a joy. And even one, the published-in-Canada “Gender in the 1990s” book, reprinted my entire chapter.
Only just now, in writing this post, have I put those books together and have noticed that what they have in common, besides mentioning me, is wonderfully sexy and/or beautifully designed covers!
You will notice that references to my chapter ended by the early 2000s. By then, studies had moved well beyond “a sociology of homosexuality” and “lesbian and gay studies” to queer studies and critical sexualities studies.
Nevertheless, I had had the pleasure of riding that wave well beyond my Best By date.
But Wait, There’s More
Ken Plummer and I had kept in touch with each other over the decades. I often visited him and his partner, Everard, when I went to the UK. As well, I had visited them twice in California where they had spent part of almost every year when Ken was a visiting professor at UCSB (University of California at Santa Barbara).
Therefore Ken knew where to find me when he decided to organize a seminar to bring together those of us who had contributed to the book:
“to examine how the book evolved and how it came to pose new questions and theories for the study of ‘homosexuality’ and how these ideas ultimately developed. The seminar was held in memory of Mary McIntosh, who was a prominent member of the department between 1975 and 1996 and the first woman chair (1986-9), who died in 2013.”
The timing of our get-together (March 2015) coincided not only with the 35th anniversary of the publication of The Making of the Modern Homosexual but also with the 50th anniversary of the University of Essex.
Ken invited me to chair the discussion and I, with my David, had no problem getting on a plane and crossing the ocean to undertake that task.
I had the great pleasure of meeting up with John Marshall again for the first time since the 1980s. He, after Essex, had become a gay journalist and was the first editor of Gay Times, a British gay news magazine that provided an important voice for gay struggles during the Thatcherite 1980s.
And my old pal, Jeffrey Weeks from Gay Left would be there too, now a distinguished academic who had published multiple books. What a wonderful reunion it was.
So, that’s it. And this time I mean it.
Congratulations on making it to the end of this post! It’s long! I do hope it was worth your while.
I have spent more time on this post than on any other I’ve written. However, without the input of many friends who took time to answer my questions and read my drafts, it would have been a much weaker piece. I want to thank them for catching the many stylistic and content mistakes I’d made, along with suggesting improvements.
David Tacium, my queer writers’ group buddy, did his usual excellent sentence level revisions, seeing gaffes my eyes had missed despite me having read my drafts many times.
Larry Baer, my Montreal and Toronto psychologist writer friend, pointed out some errors and also encouraged me to give my piece a more positive spin saying I’d downplayed the importance of the work I’d done.
Ken Plummer, my supervisor and friend from that far away time, also generously gave me his time and praise. Just like he did for me over 40 years ago, he encouraged me, gave suggestions and gently pointed out places that needed more work.
Finally, I want to give my biggest thanks to John Marshall for putting his Gay Times editor hat back on and exercising his editorial muscles to wrestle me into bringing this post into some coherent and manageable shape. At the same time, he helped me to recall the details of those long ago sociological concepts which had slipped far from the top of my mind and had got very muddled. He patiently and kindly un-muddled them for me.
This post is immensely better because of everyone’s input. Of course, whatever mistakes remain of an intellectual or stylistic nature are entirely of my own making.
My Next Post
My next post will have a very different flavour (and should be easier to write) as I will talk about the relationships I was in during my time at Essex as well as the sex I had in the gay pleasure gardens of those days. Perhaps I should give a Reader, Be Warned warning.