The Gilded Age Construction of American Homophobia (book)

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The Gilded Age Construction of American Homophobia is a book by Jay Hatheway explaining how the construct of "homosexuality" was created by "alienists" (early psychiatrists) who "medicalized" human sexual behavior, therefore taking it out of the realm of religious morality, and placing in the realm of (so-called) "psychological" medicine, which then led to a subsequent search for a "cure" for this new "disease" or "perversion".

Publisher's description (

The Gilded Age Construction of American Homophobia is an analysis of the negative response to the discovery of the homosexual in late Nineteenth century America. In this period of social distress, many Americans came to doubt the underlying assumptions of national progress. If the United States were to remain true to its promise of earthly perfection, then the forces of social disharmony had to be overcome. Homosexuality, however, challenged the very notions of order and progress. This book investigates the responses of the emergent medical community to this problem, and concludes with a discussion of how the negative reception of the homosexual impacted the future social conception of gay men and women.[1]

From the Introduction to the book

This is not a book about homosexuality or of homosexuals per se, nor was it written for academics who specialize in this field and whose insights are far greater than mine. My goal, instead, was to present an essay about the origins of American homophobia to the general public and students alike. Much of what follows is derived directly from questions posed to me by my students in American history, the most frequent of which has been, “But why do people hate gays and lesbians so much?” I thought I had some insight into this basic question because I had had firsthand experience. In 1975, I was a Special Forces First Lieutenant and was court-martialled for allegedly engaging in homosexual acts. The raw hate I received shook me to the core, and I sought to discover why my fellow soldiers reacted so negatively to behaviors only asserted, not even proved. The only answer I came up with was education. These men and women were literally trained throughout their lives to hate homosexuals for no other reason than that they were “faggots.” That was, I thought, stupid and utterly irrational. What had any homosexual ever done to them that called forth such profound vituperation? As far as I could tell, nothing, but the fear and anger persisted despite their not even knowing a single gay or lesbian. [...]

Customer review (

  • 3.0 out of 5 stars
  • Gilded Age medical invention of the Homosexual Identity
By Eric N. Romstedon December 24, 2005

Hathaway's short, and far too expensive, book is billed as a look at the origins of homophobia in America. However, the real focus of the book is far more narrow, the invention of the idea of a homosexual identity by the late nineteenth century medical community.

Hathaway begins with an overview of 19th century social change and specifically, developments in the medical profession. This information will be familiar to many readers, but it is relevent to the author's argument that the new view of same sex attraction and sexual acts was based on an interpretation of the radical changes ongoing in the culture as a whole.

The heart of the book is a discussion of the views of late 19th century medical and psychiatrical professionals toward same sex (or inverted as they called it) attraction. As Hathaway notes these men continued the age old view that same sex attraction was fundimentally wrong, and many kept with the view that it was a matter of sin and vice. However, a growing and influental group argued that inverted attraction was biological in origin and outside the will of the individual. This was the begining of the idea that homosexuality was a distinct identity, not simply a set of sinful acts. This biological origin group still believed homosexuality was wrong and elaborated complex theories of the degeneration of modern society which had lead to the creation of degenerate, sexually inverted individuals.

The problem is what to make of this elite debate over the nature of homosexuality. How much did these ideas really impact the broader society? Hathaway gives us some evidence that the biological origin group was influetial in trial law and that some of the newly forming gay communities ridiculed the patholigizing of their desires, but the question of impact is never fully explored.

Hathaway's approach strikes me as similar to trying to understand racism by looking exclusively at antibellum "scientific" race theories. I view these race theories as more of an attempt to justify and rationalize pre-existing racist acts and beliefs than as a source of racism themselves. A smilar case could be made about the theories of homosexuality that Hathaway disects.

Revulsion at homosexual behavior has been passed on at all levels of society for ages, with or without scientific theories to justify it. The underlying and unanswered question is, what role does the proscription of same sex desire and love play in our society?

Although Hathaway does not answer this question he does draw one novel connection worthy of note. In the 1970s, gay rights advocates adopted a civil rights stratagy for their struggle, identifying themselves as an oppressed group much like people of color and women. This argument is predicated on the idea that homosexuality is a biological identity. But Hathaway has shown us that 100 years earlier this idea of an homosexual identity had been developed not to celebrate the naturalness of homosexuality, but rather to cure society of what was viewed as the most profound symptom of social sickness and degeneracy.[2]

Relevance to BoyLovers

BoyLove in Western countries has traditionally been viewed as a form of homosexual behavior, rather than as another sexual orientation, just as heterosexuality and homosexuality are sexual orientations. This book helps Boylovers to understand how pedophilia became medicalized, and how homophobia developed in the U.S.



See also

External links

  • where the book may be ordered online.
  • Read online/download The Gilded Age Construction of American Homophobia by Jay_Hatheway at this link:
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