Culture, sexual lifeways, and developmental subjectivities: rethinking sexual taxonomies

Culture, sexual lifeways, and developmental subjectivities: rethinking sexual taxonomies

Andrew J. Hostetler


In the twenty years since the first English translation of Foucault’s (1980[1978]) History of Sexuality, Volume 1, sexual categories have become conceptually and ideologically suspect. Building on Foucault’s post-structural critique of sexual ideas and discourses, lesbian, gay, and feminist theorists have repeatedly contested the essential, intrinsic, or universal character of sexual identities. In subjecting the largely unexamined binaries of male/female and homo/hetero to analysis, theorists have gone beyond taxonomies of deviance to understand the cultural, historical, and textual sources of these idea systems (Altman, 1972, 1982; Weeks, 1977, 1981, 1985; Herdt, 1981, 1987, 1994; Vance, 1984, 1991; Newton, 1979; Newton and Walton, 1984; Halperin, 1990; Warner, 1993; Sedgwick, 1993a, 1993b, 1990; Butler, 1990, 1993; Halperin, 1995; Bersani, 1995; Patton, 1993; Berlant and Freeman, 1993; Halley, 1993). Cultural and historical investigations of two- and three-sex/gender systems (Herdt, ed., 1994), for instance, have substantially reframed the question of gender and sexual binarisms.

Taken together, this work has revealed some of the ways in which specific sexual identities are socially and discursively instantiated–on the body and in the mind–as alternately privileged or marginalized forms of personhood(1) in the contemporary Western world. This work has also produced a distinctive brand of inquiry, primarily textual, known as “queer theory.” In addition to expanding the postmodern challenge to Western epistemological hegemony through its critique of geographic and temporal projections of our gender and sexual categories, queer theory has established sexual identity as a central axis of contemporary critical discourse about personhood and agency. Indeed, queer theorists have provided the most potent critiques of the theoretical coherence and practical utility of modern sexual taxonomies, though the claims of this position have not gone unchallenged within feminist and gay/lesbian academic quarters. Recent debates about queer theory have focused on moving beyond deconstructing identities, the necessity of their strategic deployment, and the importance of acknowledging the particularity of gay and lesbian lives. While recognizing the significance of these theoretical developments, we believe a gaping hole remains in postmodern discourses about sexual identities and classificatory systems: namely, the absence of a sufficiently complicated account of individual subjects and agents. More precisely, queer theory has tended to oppose individual agency to sexual taxonomy, typically on the grounds that taxonomy is normativizing and inevitably generative of an excluded other.

Through a careful reading of the assumptions and idealizations of queer theory–a reading informed by developmental psychology and cultural anthropology–this paper attempts to reconceptualize the relationship between sexual taxonomies, sexual subjectivities, and agency. While building on the insights of queer theory, we also wish to recoup sexual classificatory systems as necessary, even useful–if ever-shifting and contingent–frameworks for understanding the intentional realities and individual experiences of sexual minorities. After reviewing current debates among queer, feminist, and other poststrucrural theorists, we elaborate the concept of sexual lifeways (Herdt, 1997a) as an alternative to concepts such as “sexual identity.” Sexual lifeways are culturally constituted developmental pathways, embedded within social and symbolic systems, that provide rich and meaningful contexts for the realization of full personhood in a society. These lifeways are conventionalized in the sense that they provide customary means and ends for individual development according to the locally situated theory of “human nature.” Plummer (1994), for example, has explored the cultural narratives or “sexual stories” that guide normative and nonnormative sexual development in our own tradition. Similarly, the concept of “lifeway” enables an understanding both of the life possibilities opened up, as well as those foreclosed by a given sexual lifeway (for example, being “gay” or “lesbian” has thus far precluded canonical church marriage and parenthood). Thus, we can begin to chart the points of resistance as well as conformity in the space between deeply socialized desires–both normative and nonnormative–and the cultural scripts for their expression (Gagnon, 1990). We conclude with a brief example to illustrate these theoretical points.

Queer Theory: Grounding Assumptions and Continuing Debates

From its inception, queer theory has decentered concepts of subjectivity and identity. As is now well known, queer theory (a term attributed originally to Teresa de Lauretis [Wiegman, 1994]), is the immediate offspring of a gay and lesbian studies, wedded, so to speak, to gay and AIDS activism in the context of the late 1980s/early 1990s. Thus we might think of it as the grandchild of academic feminism and gay liberationist theory (see Annamarie Jagose, 1996). Although Foucault’s History of Sexuality (1978) is often cited as the originary work in queer theory, earlier works by Hocquenghem (1993[1972]), Altman (1972, 1982), and Weeks (1977) are also considered significant. By the mid-1980s, its emergence was already signaled by constructivist social theory (see Plummer, 1981; Weeks, 1985; Herdt, 1981, 1987; Chauncey, 1982; D’Emilio, 1983; Newton, 1979; Rubin, 1981, 1993; Vance, 1984, 1991), a history sometimes forgotten by textual scholars (Patton, 1993; Altman, 1995). Particularly pivotal recent texts include Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985) and Epistemology of the Closet (1990), and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990). Sedgwick’s Between Men has been widely credited with igniting the recent explosion of queer social and textual analyses, and her work has been highly influential in insinuating discussions of sexual identity into the center of critical discourse. And in Epistemology of the Closet she offers an opening salvo for the project of queer theory when she states: “An understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition” (p. 1).

Let us briefly review this textual theory, which is informed by continental poststructuralism, best exemplified by the work of Althusser, Derrida, Barthes, de Man, Lacan, and particularly Foucault. In line with the general poststructural critique, queer theory debates the relative merits of the following assumptions: 1) The existence of transparent, natural, timeless, and purely descriptive gender and sexual categories is a modernist myth. 2) Although homoerotic behavior has most likely occurred in all times and places, the forms, meanings, and social formations associated with same-sex (and cross-sex) behavior are culturally and historically contingent, and the emergence of the “homosexual” as a distinct category of personhood is a late-modern Western phenomenon. 3) Identity and subject position are multiply determined, dynamic, and fluid, while the existence of a unitary and coherent “gay,” “lesbian,” or “homosexual” subject is also an illusion. 4) Male/female and homosexual/heterosexual binaries are deeply embedded in Western epistemology and discourse, and these binaries inevitably structure processes of self-construction and social and political engagement. 5) Cultural discourse and social movements that attempt to legitimize gay and lesbian identifies, most commonly through the procurement of civil rights, reinscribe normative taxonomic structures that can operate only through the articulation of an excluded other. 6) Queer, a formerly pejorative term reclaimed by nonheterosexual and/or antihomophobic subjects, signifies an open, multiperspectival, and fluid–if slippery–conceptual space from which to contest more effectively a heteronormative and heterosexist social order (Martin and Piggford 1997). While assumptions 1 and 2 are now widely, if not universally accepted among feminist and lesbian and gay scholars, assumptions 3 and 4 are more controversial, and assumptions 5 and 6 have generated heated debate between different schools within gender and sexuality studies. These latter two assumptions are the most relevant to our own concerns regarding subjectivity and agency.

Contestations of queer theory may be provisionally categorized in the following way: First, there are semantic objections to the use of the word queer perceived by some to carry too much negative cultural baggage to ever be socially or politically effective (others maintain that the meanings of the term are not static or fixed, and that it derives its power precisely from the inversion and positive reinflection of its original meaning [Martin and Piggford 1997]). Second, there are objections to the term’s tendency to obscure or erase the specificity of gay and lesbian experience and concerns. Third, there are objections to the perceived denial of structural and material realities in favor of the symbolic and cultural. And, fourth, there are objections to the forms of political strategy and agency that seem to follow from queer theory, forms that appear to be either radically apolitical, eternally reactive, or strictly parodic and performative.(2)

The latter three objections follow from each other and lead into our critique. The second objection, more specifically, is that queer–conceptualized as an unspecified form of sexual difference, a fluid and unfixed horizon of sexual and political possibility (de Lauretis, 1991; Warner, 1993; Berlant and Freeman, 1993; Patton, 1993)–creates a new “closet,” a rhetorical erasure of the gay or lesbian subject, thus undermining the specificity and concrete embodiment of his or her experience and subjectivity (Halperin, 1995). This argument has at least two, more specific variants, one feminist, the other antielitist. Feminist commentators (Jeffreys, 1993; Castle, 1993; Grosz, 1994) have complained that queer theory’s merger of gender and sexuality, and its categorical elision of lesbian and gay, subordinates feminist concerns in service of what they see as a gay white male agenda. Similarly, others (Escoffier, 1990; Malinowitz, 1993) have decried what they see as an elitist and exclusionary movement–a lofty, abstract, and inaccessible set of textual practices produced by and for a narrow academic audience far removed from the concerns of average gays and lesbians.

This general objection to queer’s tendency toward despecification opens the third area of active contestation, what Cindy Patton (1993, p. 167) has referred to as the “evacuation” of the social (roles, institutions, political structures) in favor of the cultural (the symbolic and the textual). Specifically, some critics argue that queer theory ignores the ways in which existing social formations, having transformed the homo/hetero binary into the force of law, significantly inflect the everyday subjectivities and social struggles of lesbians, gay men, and other sexual minorities.

Finally, both self-described queer theorists and their detractors have worried about the political stance suggested by queer social and literary criticism. As both Seidman (1993) and Patton (1993) have noted, poststructuralism in general and queer theory in particular are widely perceived as being much more effective in identifying problems than in specifying solutions, and are thus considered apolitical or even reactionary by some. Focusing specifically on Judith Butler’s (1990) notion of gender “performativity,” others argue that the politics of queer theory are purely theatrical and parodic (Weston, 1993; Grosz, 1994). Yet another reading of the implicit politics of queer theory, which most substantially informs our own critique, posits an endless “queer” reactivity, a resistance in the name of resistance; a politics that valorizes and idealizes the “sexual outlaw” (Halperin, 1995).

The various debates and exchanges spurred by these objections have been productive in moving gay/lesbian and queer scholarship forward. Scholars in the more established fields of gay and lesbian and gender studies have incorporated some of the fundamental insights of queer theory into their own work, if sometimes only grudgingly, while queer theory scholars have refined and sharpened their own analyses. Many of these refinements stem from a more careful specification of the significations and the most effective deployments of “queer,” deployments that are not inimical to established modes of social and political engagement. As Michael Warner (1993, p. xxvii) has suggested:

Queer activists are also lesbians and gays in other

contexts–as for example where leverage can be gained

through bourgeois propriety, or through minority-rights

discourse …. Queer politics has not just replaced older

modes of lesbian and gay identity; it has come to exist

alongside those older modes, opening up new possibilities

and problems whose relation to more familiar problems is

not always clear.

Others, such as Steven Seidman (1993, p. 134), have attempted to clarify the queer objection to sexual taxonomies in general, arguing that “[i]dentity constructions are not disciplining and regulatory in a self-limiting and oppressive way; they are also personally, socially and politically enabling.” And Jeffrey Weeks (1995, p. 33) grounds his analysis in the principle that we are all “simultaneously subjected to and subjects of sex.” Weeks offers a qualified defense of identity constructions by questioning, “[I]f we assert [our identities] too firmly are we fixing identifications and values that are necessarily always in flux; and if we deny their validity too completely, are we disempowering ourselves from the best means of mobilizing for radical change?” (p. 37).

But despite these and other concerted efforts to disentangle agency from resistance against normative taxonomic structures, queer theory inevitably cycles back to this equation. Thus, Seidman (1993, pp. 135-37) goes on to discourage the “normalization” of gay in favor of a “politics of resistance,” and Weeks (1995) advocates “interrogating and challenging the normalizing and imposed forms of identity” (p. 44) and the “living out of individual acts of defiance [that] can challenge the status quo” (p. 47). This formulation of individual agency as resistance–against norms or hegemonic culture in general–is echoed again and again in the work of even the most self-reflexive writers. Michael Warner, for example, argues that “queer politics oppose society itself” (1993, p. xxvii), and he encourages “a more thorough resistance to regimes of the normal” (p. xxvi). In his book Homos, Leo Bersani (1995) is even more direct in his dismissal of “assimilationist” political strategies and life choices:

Suspicious of our own enforced identity, we are reduced to

playing subversively with normative identities–attempting,

for example, to “resignify” the family for communities that

defy the usual assumptions about what constitutes a family.

These efforts, while valuable, can have assimilative rather

than subversive consequences; having de-gayed themselves,

gays melt into the culture they like to think of themselves as

undermining (p. 5).

(In his defense, this commentary was offered in the context of a larger critique of the ways in which radical social constructionism tends to erase the specificity of gay and lesbian lives.) Similarly, in his tribute to Foucault, Halperin (1995) asserts:

what Foucault recommends to us, as we’ve seen is to keep

working at being gay [that is, not simply accept existing

modes of being gay] …. Not to work, in a context shaped

by the multiple apparatuses of heteronormativity, is not to

resist: it is to surrender any hope of autonomy (p. 108;

emphasis in original).

And Edelman (1994, p. xvi) promotes the “deployment of `gay identity’ as a signifier of resistance.”

In short, a clear hierarchy emerges in which the gay man or lesbian who fails to resist (reject?) cultural and sexual norms-including “heteronormative” forms of sexual expression, intimacy, relationality, and family, among other things–is relegated to a position of compromised agency. These sentiments are also apparent in recent arguments within the lesbian and gay community against same-sex marriage (see for example Brownworth, 1996), arguments inspired by a long history of feminist and gay critiques of the institutions of marriage and the family. (Of course, it must also be noted that gay marriage and family advocates often unfairly reduce important political critique to adolescent-like rebellion, thus speciously equating maturity and agency with conformity to heterosexual norms). Thus, despite its compelling critique of normative sexual taxomonies, queer theory appears to produce its own norms and exclusions.

Queer Idealizations and the Missing Discourse on Subjectivity

The general failure to move beyond such black-and-white, all-or-nothing approaches to agency as applied to individual life-choices is primarily attributable to two factors: the lack of a psychological and developmental perspective, and an overly idealistic reading of queer identity. First, despite a general acknowledgment of the problem, queer theory ultimately–and sometimes willfully–neglects the ways in which politically relevant subjectivities and social actions are informed by unique life experiences and developmental trajectories, thereby reproducing a narrow vision of agency. In fact, for all of its talk about subjectivity and agency, queer theory demonstrates a remarkable lack of interest in individual phenomenologies that do not prefigure or follow from the moment of resistance. Informed by poststructural critiques, most queer theorists continue to reject any form of “psychologism” as inherently reductive, mechanistic, and/or essentialist, and tend to conflate psychology, in general, with the universalizing discourses of psychoanalysis. This position is evident in Halperin’s Saint Foucault (1995), which argues that one of Foucault’s major contributions to the study of sexuality was to remove it, once and for all, from the realm of psychology:

Even and exactly as Foucault politicizes sex, he also depsychologigizes

it …. More specifically, Foucault’s antipsychoanalytic

approach to sexuality makes it possible, as well as

sensible and proper, to treat homophobia as a political, not

a psychological problem: it implies that the causes of homophobia

are to be sought not in psychic life, in fantasy, or in

the vicissitudes of human development (p. 121; emphasis in


What is troubling about this and similar perspectives is not their legitimization of cultural and political analyses of sexuality, but rather their delegitimization of the study of individual differences and their relevance to the developmental subjectivity of the sexual actor. Implicit in these arguments is the deep-seated belief that a psychological perspective is incompatible with social, cultural, political, and historical forms of analysis, a bias that is unwarranted today (Herdt, 1997; Shweder, 1991; Shweder and Levine, eds., 1984; Stigler, Shweder, and Herdt, eds., 1990). And although several queer theorists use Freud and psychoanalysis, not as a foil, but in more constructive and creative ways (Bersani, 1995; Butler, 1990, 1993; Grosz, 1994), the resultant hybrids, while certainly productive, tend to drain meaning out of the person. For instance, Butler, Bersani, and Grosz each use psychoanalysis in service of the general poststructural assault on the fiction of the unified self.

The unfortunate consequence of this antipsychologism is an impoverished conception not just of the forms of individual agency, but of the culturally embedded lives and personal meaning systems of actors. In its near-exclusive focus on a collective political agency, queer theory produces a two-dimensional account of the means by which the individual political actor comes into being, a failing that is at least partially attributable to the conceptual inadequacies of “identity” (which we discuss below). Despite assertions to the contrary, then, the actor that emerges from queer-inflected poststructuralism appears to be a relatively empty vessel that can be “filled up” with hegemonic or counter-hegemonic discourses, and that is endowed, at most, with rationality and free will. Initially filled with hegemonic discourse (falsely conscious?), the actor-vessel discovers the restrictiveness and/or oppressiveness (inauthenticity?) of this discourse and, through the rational expression of a relatively unfettered will, charts a new course of resistance. While this is a caricature, of course, and one not likely to be endorsed by queer theorists, it is nevertheless a reasonable facsimile of the subjectively impoverished persons suggested in recent writings.

Our point is not simply to repeat earlier objections to the “evacuated” social or exaggerated voluntarism of queer theory. We also want to argue that personal choices about how to live and adapt–far from being reducible to the effects of rational and seemingly spontaneous exertions of an enlightened free will–are informed by powerful, culturally and historically inscribed subjectivities and desires, which form and transform over the course of development. In other cultures, particularly, taxonomies of sexuality and gender are embedded in frameworks of personhood that create powerful incentives for conformity, but which may also provide for divergent lifeways, socially permitted or even sanctioned, at least among certain elements of the community. In other words, only in theory–and then only in certain quarters of late modern western culture–are life choices so neatly dividable into categories of “assimilationist” and “resistant” (the new queer taxonomy?), with the former reflecting a mindless, if socially rewarding conformity, and the latter a self-conscious and politically astute agency. Nor, it bears saying, should these life choices be misunderstood as “adolescent rebelliousness” versus “social maturity,” as more conservative critics of the queer movement and its gay liberationist predecessor have been prone to suggest (Kirk and Madsen, 1989; Bawer, 1993; Sullivan, 1996).

This brings us to our second point: in practice, “queer” is not quite the unfixed horizon of possibility it was designed to be. Indeed, queer seems to set up its own hierarchies, exclusions, and more or less mandatory subject positions, as indicated in the preceding analysis and as made explicit in the following passage from Michael Warner (1993):

Every person who comes to a queer self-understanding

knows in one way or another that her stigmatization is connected

with gender, the family, notions of individual freedom,

the state, public speech, consumption and desire,

nature and culture, maturation, reproductive politics, racial

and national fantasy, class identity, truth and trust, censorship,

intimate life and social display, terror and violence,

health care, and deep cultural norms about the bearing of

the body. Being queer means fighting about these issues all

the time” (p. xiii).

And being a “true” (homosexual) agent seems to mean being queer, as specified very precisely here and elsewhere, its claim to eluding definition aside. In fact, the laundry list of voluntarily assumed positions that become necessary–if not sufficient–grounds for claiming oneself as queer produce a more monolithic identity than lesbian or gay ever was, replete with its own insider/outsider politics (that is, resisters/antiassimilationists versus assimilationists). In the words of Eve Sedgwick, “some lesbians and gays would never count as queer” (1993b, p. 13, emphasis added). The conceptual misrepresentation of “queer” seems to bespeak a tendency on the part of certain writers to imagine that it inhabits a realm beyond language (Edelman, 1994), a category unlike other categories because it is immune to deeply entrenched patterns of cultural and linguistic formation that favor stabilization. Such a claim is belied not only by its increasing crystallization as a meaningful and coherent category, but also by the circumstances of its own relational emergence–as a response to the established categories of gay and lesbian (which, Warner’s comments aside, it self-consciously distinguishes itself from) and as a positive inflection of an even earlier category that gay/lesbian sought to replace.

Given this at least partial misconceptualization of queer as always in the process of becoming, it is perhaps not surprising that resistance to existing, normative forms of being–however defined–is its modus operandi. However, in its effort to construct a human agency open to possibility, it categorically excludes one very large set of possibilities–namely those that could be considered normative. By situating questions of social, personal, and political agency within a developmental framework, we can begin to understand how particular socially embedded life histories get mapped onto culturally available sexual lifeways, without making a priori assumptions about which identities constitute agency and which do not. Only by paying attention to how individuals balance cultural demands, political commitments, and deeply socialized life-desires–some concordant, others discordant with cultural norms–can we arrive at a deeper, more complicated conceptualization of individual subjectivity and agency. Thus, social research should seek to understand how individuals, in negotiating the tensions between norms and desires, devise personal solutions, and/or even creative innovations across the course of life and in the face of the existential concerns shared by all humans; we refer to this phenomenon as developmental agency (Hostetler, unpublished manuscript).

Our intention here is not to depoliticize agency or reify a dubious distinction between the private/individual and public/political realms. Nor are we positing an essential, developmentally fixed agency. We start, rather, from the assumption that processes of enculturation, while never totalizing, are sufficiently profound as to obviate the kind of voluntaristic self-determination suggested by much of the work we have thus far reviewed. While we strongly believe that social science should not pursue specific political aims at the price of denigrating particular forms of social life, we are not attempting to breath life into the old logical-positivist dogma that social research can ever be fully “objective,” in service to an “out-there,” unmediated reality. However, at the same time that we are troubled by partisan representations of political agency, we recognize that the legitimacy of the claims staked by particular agents depends on noninfringement upon the legitimate claims of others–a point queer partisans understand far better than many of their conservative opponents. In sum, we agree that “the personal is political,” but we also believe that the personal is more than political, and that the political is also personal. The latter two assumptions guide our present project.

Given this perspective, how, if at all, can we productively make use of sexual taxonomies? As we have already argued, the queer pretense–or at least the aspiration–to displace taxonomy, while provocative and intriguing, is most likely not sustainable. Although “queer” may ultimately reshape the boundaries of gender and sexual identities, it is unlikely to do away with these boundaries anytime soon–indeed, its success as a critical intervention does not and should not depend on this eventuality. What does seem clear at the moment is that “queer” does operate as gender/sexual category in dialectical relation with–and sometimes in reaction to–other existing categories, and that it demonstrates its own normativizing and prescriptive tendencies and insider/outsider politics. This is not news to many of the most ardent defenders of “queer” who still hope to see its radical potential realized. Whether or not future events bear out this hope is not relevant to our present purpose. Rather, we see in “queer” a potentially viable, if still emergent, sexual lifeway–one of several in the contemporary West (most notably the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia), and one in a century-long line of sexual lifeways available to individuals with homoerotic desires.

Sexual Cultures and Sexual Lifeways

To make a psychological/developmental perspective relevant to contemporary social theory and research, it must not simply recycle universalist, essentialist, and reductionist assumptions. And if such a perspective is to make productive use of taxonomies, these taxonomies must be culturally and historically grounded (Herdt and Stoller, 1990; Herdt, 1991). As we have already alluded, we find existing concepts–such as “sexual preference,” “sexual orientation,” and even “sexual identity”–to be inadequate in describing the forms of social life and subjectivity that have been attached to particular sexual desires. In addition to being too individualistic and internal, obscuring the social and cultural levels from view (Herdt, 1997a), these concepts reduce to one or, at most, two dimensions (that is, sexual object choice, and the subjective identifications that follow from it) what is in fact a multidimensional, multifaceted phenomenon (though, of course, all concepts homogenize diversity to some degree). Obviously, it is inadequate to reduce all of these meanings to an entity such as “identity,” which does not inflect developmental and cultural change, but rather instantiates permanence in a way that is foreign to most people’s lives (Herdt, 1990). The failure of queer theory to move beyond “identity,” even as it has deconstructed it, is no doubt partially responsible for its cynical reading of sexual taxonomies.

We do not mean to say merely that identity is a process; we also mean to suggest that the phenomena typically glossed as “sexual identity” includes a narrative of origins (an ontology), a fantasy of an ultimate purpose and future fulfillment (a teleology),(3) and a theory of and/or plan for moral action in the world (deontology). We take issue with queer theory’s tendency to dismiss the ontological and teleological components as merely essentialist (see for example Patton, 1993), and we contend that all three of these dimensions are important to the formation and sustenance of meaningful human life patterns–a claim long supported by the cross-cultural record (Malinowski, 1929; Benedict, 1934; Mead, 1935; Herdt, 1981, 1994; Nanda, 1990; Shweder, 1984; Vance, 1991). For the present, we conceptualize these notions and their contexts through the idea of sexual lifeways, which has the merit of avoiding the triumvirate of “isms” listed above.

Sexual lifeways are the culturally specific erotic ideas and emotions, sexual/gender categories and roles, and theories of being and becoming a full social person that together constitute life-course development within a particular sexual culture (Herdt, 1997a, p. 20). Sexual cultures, in turn, are the specific discursive and material fields in which systems of power relationships are used to control sexual behavior or conduct, and through which sexual lifeways are instituted, enculturated, enacted, and reproduced. Sexual cultures, as historical formations, are distinct from bordering cultures and from the imports of colonization. However, in a time of increasing migration and change in the world system, larger processes of globalization had contributed to the current flux of sexual cultures (Herdt, ed., 1997b). Sexual cultures and lifeways provide formulas for gender performances and for the control of gender roles in sexual relations. Sexual lifeways thus overlap significantly with gendered lifeways: what is at stake is the control of sexual behavior, which has important implications for the enactment of gender.

Sexual lifeways provide a cultural template or script that inflects individual subjectivity, shaping an amorphous array of thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires into specific attractions, fantasies, behaviors, understandings of the self, roles, rights, duties, ontologies, deontologies, and teleologies. This is not to suggest that specific sexual desires, such as for same-sex or cross-sex persons, are something the individual is simply socialized into as part of a larger gender package. Some of the components of sexual lifeways are more accurately described as “learned” and are therefore more voluntary than others. The concept is not intended to be exhaustive of all processes of sexual development; there are potential slippages between sexual lifeways and other psychosocial processes that produce sexual subjects, and these slippages can produce discordances and mismatches between the different components of any given sexual lifeway. For example, most individuals in the contemporary West continue to be socialized in the direction of erotic and emotional attachments to members of the opposite sex, with the expectation that they will heterosexually marry, rear a family, and, eventually, become a grandparent. But despite the existence of one officially sanctioned sexual lifeway, there are a myriad of possible developmental outcomes, including the adoption of a gay or lesbian identity and social role–a sexual lifeway that becomes a viable alternative in adolescence, at the earliest.

And individuals who do adopt a heteronormative sexual lifeway may still experience discrepancies between the different components of this lifeway. For instance, in a study of gay- and lesbian-identified youth in Chicago (Herdt and Boxer, 1996), we found that a heterosexually identified adolescent who hopes to be a wife and mother might experience significant dissonance as a result of her sexual desire to love and have sex with another woman. If she comes from a more traditional community within the city, she might experience a painful dichotomy between her desire for an erotic object versus her desire for a social and sexual way of life (heterosexual wife and mother). The inclination to seek a context in which to explore and understand these tensions and meanings is strongly marked, as Michelle Fine (1988) has shown for urban adolescent girls of color. So, while the cultural ideal is for sexual lifeways to shape individual sexual experience seamlessly, this is rarely the case in practice. It is in the various matches and mismatches that sexual subjectivities are formed. And sexual agency emerges in finding a personally acceptable balance between different kinds of desires–sexual, emotional, relational, and life-desires (Herdt and Boxer, 1996), the latter three of which are often neglected by queer theorists. Thus, agency may or may not involve discarding (the more voluntary components of) one sexual lifeway in favor of a more congruent, satisfying, or fulfilling one.

Whereas every sexual lifeway carries with it a sexual identity, or an internal sense of sexual sameness or belonging to one group and a sense of difference from another group or groups, not all sexual identities are attached to unique and distinct sexual lifeways. Some identities, which evolve over the course of both individual lives and historical time, never develop into full lifeways, and either remain tied to discrete periods of the life course or disappear from the cultural landscape altogether. Either fate may still await “queer,” the future of which remains unclear, although we will argue momentarily that it shows significant promise of becoming a distinctive sexual lifeway. And unlike sexual lifeways, sexual identities–portable snapshots and abstractions–can be assumed for strategic and/or practical purposes in one context, and discarded in another. Although sexual lifeways can also be fluid and internally inconsistent, they cannot be alternately worn and shed like articles of clothing. Rather, strategic uses of identity tap into and mobilize common-sense understandings of sexual lifeways for particular purposes. Thus, a queer-identified woman might assume the identity of lesbian when advocating for lesbian and gay civil rights–a political discourse that mobilizes an ethnic or minority identity that, while effective in this context, is otherwise alien to her sense of self.

Because they are culturally and historically contingent, transmitted through processes of socialization, and subject to change and transformation over the course of individual lives, the study of sexual lifeways requires ethnographic, historical, and develop mental analyses. Within a given historical society, such as the United States, there may be multiple sexual cultures. For example, gay sexual culture has historically been somewhat distinct from heterosexual (or general, “Western”) sexual culture, but the emergence of increasingly public lesbian and gay sexual lifeways has led to significant overlap between gay and heterosexual cultures (Levine, Nardi, and Gagnon, 1997). It is also possible for cultures that are fundamentally different in other ways to have similar sexual cultures. Of particular note, dominant or hegemonic sexual lifeways have consistently included marriage and parenthood across cultures and throughout history, with few exceptions, although there have been many cultural variations within this broad pattern. For instance, among the Sambia of Papua-New Guinea, men cannot marry or become fathers until they have passed through six stages of ritual initiations that include years of ritualized boy-insemination, or what we would call “fellatio” (Herdt, 1981). The Sambia believe that, although marriage and fatherhood complete masculine personhood, development cannot proceed to this point without repeated inseminations. Thus, an account of Sambia sexual culture would be incomplete without a description of the homoerotic practices upon which the agency and full personhood of the male actor is contingent.

Age Cohorts, Generations, and Sexual Lifeways

It is also possible for competing sexual lifeways to coexist within the same social field, offering alternative forms of expression to what seem on the surface to be similar desires, wishes or attractions. For example, becoming a nun and becoming a wife and mother have both historically been acceptable, if not equally valued, avenues to fulfilling female “destiny” in the Western tradition. In another setting, competing lifeways may constitute a “generation gap.” While members of an older generation may reject the newer lifeway as foreign to their desires and sense of self, they may also find that it offers powerful rewards and attractive new possibilities. Although older and newer lifeways may coexist as viable, if not equally socially desirable alternatives, newer ones are likely to completely replace older ones in time (and to eventually be supplanted themselves). An example of this process would be, of course, the twentieth-century history of same-sex sexuality in the West. In fact, the relatively rapid transformations in the meaning of same-sex sexual expression over the course of the last century or so provides a fine example of divergent sexual lifeways. While the specific contenders for modern-era homoerotic lifeways are debatable, and while there are undoubtedly many more identifies than lifeways, the existence of the following nonheterosexual life-patterns now seems historically indisputable. We offer these descriptions as ideal cultural types that rarely, if ever, match the complexity of individual experience and developmental pathways.

The Sodomite, the Invert, and the Closet Homosexual

Although each of these lifeways has its own particular histories, they share common features, the most significant and obvious of which is their common basis in negative hegemonic ideologies. Clearly, they are all also male gendered lifeways, reflecting a longstanding Western preoccupation with male, as opposed to female, homosexuality. The Sodomite is the historical forerunner to the other two, but is distinguished by its origin in primarily religious and legal–as opposed to scientific and medical–discourses. As documented by van der Meer (1997), the Sodomite most recently came into existence as a specific type of person as a result of intensified legal persecution of homosexual behavior in The Netherlands and other Western European countries starting in the mid-eighteenth century. This persecution, which resulted in the execution of many lower class men charged with sodomy, had the paradoxical–if, from a contemporary vantage point, predictable–consequence of fostering the growth of networks of homoerotically inclined individuals. These social networks developed common meeting places, body language, and argot. As the eighteenth century progressed, the style and self-presentation of the Sodomite became increasingly effeminate, reflecting the emergence of an ontology grounded in the notion of a third or intermediate sex–a congenital condition, according to the new folk psychology of the Sodomite. The Sodomite could anticipate a life of hiding and clandestine sexual and romantic encounters, and, if he was of the right social class, he might very well escape detection and persecution.

The invert and the closet homosexual (Herdt and Boxer, 1996) are two more closely related, but at least partially distinguishable sexual lifeways born largely out of late-nineteenth century British and American medical discourses, as documented by Weeks (1977), Foucault (1978), Plummer (1981), and others. Although these were primarily externally imposed, negative markers of identity for individuals labeled as such, they nevertheless provided the initial means by which such individuals forged distinctive homoerotic networks–as had been the case for the Sodomite a century earlier–and, eventually, social and political communities. The attractions and desires of the invert and/or the homosexual were, of course, characterized as gender-reversed displacements of the morally proper, heteronormal aim, as theorized by Krafft-Ebing (1965[1893]) and Freud (1962[1905]), and were labeled psychopathological. The “scientific” ontology of the invert/homosexual involved “psychic hermaphroditism,” a third-sex condition that assumed an alignment of the sexual, biological, and psychological levels (Herdt, ed., 1994). In time, homosexual “etiologies” began to focus on “disturbed” family constellations (for example, “distant father/overbearing mother”). The homosexual and the invert were believed to be inherently sick and compulsive, and the only sanctioned social roles available to him were the sick patient, the celibate, or the social heterosexual. The homosexual and the invert had both the right and the duty to seek psychiatric treatment for his or her condition, but few rights beyond this. The expectable developmental outcome of homosexuality/ inversion–assuming the failure of heterosexual “conversion”–was misery, loneliness, stigma, discrimination, and a generally unhappy life, possibly ending in suicide.

Of course, once these categories provided the means by which to organize social communities and a more positive sense of identity, challenges to these dominant conceptions and new, more positive understandings emerged. Nevertheless, even as late as the 1950s Homophile movement, many homosexual leaders continued to accept the premise that they were sick and in need of scientific/psychiatric help. Despite considerable stigma, fear of disclosure, and other psychic tortures inflicted by themselves and others, as captured so well in Martin Duberman’s (1991) autobiographical Cures, many closet homosexuals enjoyed relatively happy and fulfilling lives, of course, even if these were necessarily double-lives (Chauncey, 1994).

The Gay Man and the Lesbian

The categories of gay and lesbian represent sexual lifeways that primarily emerged from the Gay Liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s (although, of course, the original use of both terms can be traced back much further). Gay and lesbian cultural narratives offer a positive rereading of homoerotic identity. In stark contrast to their predecessor, these lifeways are grounded in the fundamental assumption that same-sex desires and attractions are “normal” and “natural,” and morally and socially equivalent to heterosexuality (although early liberation discourse suggested that gay was not only good, but that it may even be better than its socially regulated counterpart). Gays and lesbians have also shared a commitment, in general, to a rights-based discourse modeled after the Civil Rights and Women’s movements. In addition to advocating equal protection under the law, gay and lesbian discourses have promoted “coming out” as both a moral duty and an unqualified moral good.

But despite these and other common features, gay male and lesbian lifeways–at least in stereotypic form–diverged significantly early in their cultural evolution. First, whereas lesbian sexual ideology (if not always practice) has historically favored partnered monogamy, gay male sexual ideology (if not always practice) has encouraged sexual variation, nonmonogamy, and multiple partners. Second, scripts for lesbian sexual behavior–at least the ones openly endorsed within lesbian culture–tended to reflect feminist commitments to eradicating power imbalances and hierarchy within relationships (no one “on top,” a focus on “nonpenetrative” acts), while gay male sexual scripts–which eventually fueled and were fueled by a vast pornography industry–offered a wider range of acceptable sexual activities, including sadomasochism (SM), fisting, and various “fetishes.” Third, lesbian ontologies highlighted the role of moral choice in determining sexual identity, which was considered as much political as personal. By contrast, gay men increasingly began to favor a biological theory of instrinsic desires. Fourth, lesbian deontologies added feminist moral concerns (that is, a moral duty to challenge sexism and patriarchy) to specifically gay ones. Finally, the lesbian telos more commonly favored self-realization in the form of partnership and motherhood, as witnessed by the much-discussed “lesbian baby boom” (Patterson, 1995b).

Over the last twenty years, gay male and lesbian sexual lifeways have begun to converge, with lesbian scripts more inclusive of sexual variation and with gay male scripts–in the wake of the AIDS epidemic–more encouraging of committed relationships and fewer sexual partners. Gay men are also increasingly demonstrating a “family ethic,” adopting children or using the services of surrogate mothers (Patterson, 1995a). These developments suggest the emergence of a gay and lesbian sexual lifeway more closely modeled on heterosocial norms (Hostetler and Cohler, 1997)–a source of great consternation to queer-identified individuals. As already indicated, gay and lesbian identities and lifeways have recently been critiqued as essentialist and normativizing, and have been challenged by new identities, such as the bisexual and the queer, which are still in the process of emerging, but which show promise of developing into full cultural lifeways.

The Bisexual

The bisexual is, of course, a category as old as “the homosexual.” In fact, the use of the term bisexual–originally intended to describe individuals who were inter-sexed, combining both male and female phenotypical traits (Herdt and Boxer, 1995)–actually predates the first usages of homosexual. A culturally and sexually liminal being (Herdt and Boxer, 1995, 1996), the bisexual has long occupied a marginal and suspect position in the Western imagination, both in relation to the heterosexual majority and the homosexual minority. Derided by both sides as shifty untrustworthy, and as either a closet homosexual or someone unable or unwilling to choose, the bisexual first became a socially legitimate category of identification during the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, coinciding with the increasing popularity of gender ambiguity or androgyny, as perhaps best exemplified by cultural icons such as David Bowie and Iggy Pop. This was a short-lived legitimacy, however; in the process of consolidating gay and particularly lesbian identities and communities, the bisexual was cast aside as a traitor of sorts, who could be expected to betray, break hearts, and/or opt for the social respectability of heterosexuality at any moment. Although this remains a powerful ideology in many quarters of the gay and lesbian community, the bisexual achieved a new respectability in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the wake of the new radicalism inaugurated by queer and AIDS activism, and through the successful political and self-representational efforts of bisexual individuals (see for example Hutchins and Kaahumanu, 1991).

The bisexual has much in common with the queer, and shares a sort of intentional definitional vagueness, which in part stems from the fact that “bisexual” describes a wide array of potential lifeways. There do seem to be, however, at least two distinct forms of bisexual expression, one in which gender is considered irrelevant to sexual and romantic attractions and choices, and one in which gender is considered very important and that celebrates what both men and women have to offer sexually and emotionally. Bisexual sexual culture, in general, stresses sexual choice, variation, and a general openness to new sexual and romantic experiences. The ontology of the bisexual is undoubtedly also marked by variability, but many bisexuals seem to favor a constructionist account of origins, that is nonetheless–and somewhat ironically–built on notions of an essential or innate polymorphous perversity and/or universal bisexual potential. And although the bisexual telos appears to be the realization of a personal sexual potential to be expressed in whatever ways are most rewarding and fulfilling, a distinct set of bisexual social roles and lifestyles seems still to be missing. Again, this is due in no small part to the diversity of bisexual forms of expression, which have precluded the crystallization of a distinctively bisexual lifeway, to the delight of many self-identified bisexuals. While some bisexuals favor concurrent sexual and romantic relationships with two or more individuals of one or both sexes (sometimes referred to as polyamory), others prefer serial monogamy, with shorter or longer committed relationships with members of both sexes. There are still other bisexually identified individuals who will spend most of their lives in monogamous (or mostly monogamous) relationships with someone of the same or opposite sex, yet continue to consider themselves bisexual.

The Queer

The queer also signals an emergent lifeway, as we have said. “Queer” is grounded, like bisexual, in a constructionist theory of origins and a theory of becoming characterized by openness and uncertainty. Queerness highlights deontological concerns, raising the contestation of existing forms of power and hierarchy–including sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia–to the level of moral imperative. The queer also valorizes sexual variation and experimentation, and refuses to neatly label or categorize his or her sexual desires, attractions, fantasies, or behaviors, although s/he may be primarily homoerotic, bierotic, or even primarily heteroerotic; s/he is defined more by political commitment and social vision than by “sexual orientation.” Although the general teleology of the queer seems utopian, an ultimate shape or form of queer expression is not specified. The lack of specific queer roles and relationships, while the primary allure of the category for some, leaves unanswered the question of whether a distinct queer culture and a sustainable queer lifeway will form. For many self-identified queers, this is precisely the point. Nevertheless, to the extent that “queer” fails to provide a meaningful and coherent life-pattern–which is not necessarily incompatible with a certain degree of indeterminacy–it will most likely not completely displace gay and lesbian, or least not in the foreseeable future. However, it may eventually displace sexual “object choice” as the primary axis of sexual-taxonomic classification, the fondest hope of some self-identified queers.

Other contemporary contenders for nonheteronormative sexual lifeways include the SM practitioner and the transgendered individual, both of whom could be considered different variants or transformations of queer. Other historical contenders include the lesbian butch/femme dyad, the “spinster” couple joined in a “Boston Marriage,” the “fairies” and first-generation “queers” of Chauncey’s Gay New York (1994), and the men who frequented the “molly houses” of seventeenth-century Great Britain (Bray, 1988). Further ethnographic and historical analysis is necessary to determine whether these categories represent sexual identities, sexual lifeways, both, or neither. It also should not be assumed that there is a monolithic Western heterosexual lifeway. Although the ideal heterosexual lifeway still includes marriage and family, the political movements of the 1960s–including the Women’s movement, the Gay Liberation movement, and the Sexual Revolution–opened up new identificatory and life-style options for heterosexual individuals (who have only recently had to identify as such.) The single mother, a dangerous and potent figure in contemporary political discourse, certainly represents a salient contemporary identity, if not necessarily a distinct lifeway (for example, she may hope to eventually marry). And there are other “queer” options for heterosexuals, including SM and polyamory.

Sexual Taxonomies, Developmental Subjectivities, and Developmental Agency

Having illuminated the concept of sexual lifeway as an alternative way of thinking about sexual taxonomies, how now can we address questions of subjectivity and agency without setting up the kind of diametric oppositions that emerge from queer theory? Queer theory, we have argued, advances the simplistic equation: agency equals resistance. But in all fairness, this is only half the story. The queer vision of agency is not merely negative and reactive; it is also positive and creative. As Weeks (1995, p. 34) puts it, in paraphrasing Foucault (1984), sexuality “is not a fatality …. It is a possibility for creative life.” He goes on to defend sexual pluralism by arguing that it provides the freedom to “construct the self as a creative self, to allow the individual to become the artist of his or her own life” (p. 45). This “art of living,” and the developmental innovations it might entail, is perfectly compatible with our understanding of agency. We have not been trying to suggest that resistance–to cultural norms, to received ways of understanding the world–is not a valid form of agency. Rather, we aim to shift the discourse on agency away from simple binarisms (that is, assimilationist/antiassimilationist), a move that seems perfectly in keeping with a queer ethos. Thus, someone described as an “assimilationist” may or may not rightly be considered an “agent,” and the same is true of someone who describes herself as “antiassimilationist.” Such attributions cannot be made apart from a consideration of the larger context of cultural lifeways and individual subjectivities. This is where the developmental perspective enters.

Every life, to greater or lesser degree, offers the possibility for social, political, and developmental agency. Although directed toward different aims, and enacted in different fields, these forms of agency significantly overlap. But while a political agent is necessarily also a developmental agent, the reverse is not always true. This distinction is important, because it avoids a hopeless moral relativism that declares all partisan positions equally good (irrespective of their effects on others), while also valuing both normative and nonnormative ways of living. Thus, a wife and mother who finds complete fulfillment in her heteronormative lifeway and a queer activist may both, equally, be agents of their own development. But if developmental agency does not mandate the rejection of received lifeways, then how is it defined?

Before we can address this question, we must first define developmental subjectivity. Because sexual subjectivities are developmentally informed, and given that individual development continues to proceed–the queer theory critique aside–along culturally embedded gendered and sexed pathways, we use the terms sexual and developmental subjectivity somewhat interchangeably. For some writers, subjectivity is merely a personal sense of self or being, positive or negative. We prefer, however, to focus on the positive sense in which one is a subject (and not an object). Thus, developmental subjectivity is the sense of personal efficacy, of positive self-regard, that emerges from the interstices of culturally patterned ways of beings, individual desires (sexual, affectional, relational, and/or life-course desires), and experience-as-lived. For our conventional wife and mother, subjectivity is experienced as the match between these three things. For our queer activist, subjectivity is defined by the rejection of one cultural way of being in favor of another that more adequately articulates her desires and life experiences. For most of us (because how many of us lead a completely normative or completely nonnormative life?), subjectivity may reflect a more delicate balancing act, forged in the process of accepting certain parts of a culturally patterned lifeway and rejecting others.

If sexual and developmental subjectivity refer to a (developmental) outcome, to a sense of self in present-time, then sexual and developmental agency are what get us to that point and propel us onward. Developmental and sexual agency (the latter being an important subcomponent of the former) reflect a self-conscious, active engagement in our own development that produces us as living and desiring subjects, not objects that are simply acted upon. This is in keeping with Giddens (1991) view of the modern self and agency as a “reflexive project,” with the proviso that this project has certain structural and symbolic limits. Our emphasis here on self-awareness does not necessarily favor an elite, intellectual minority that has the luxury of endless self-reflection; no human actor, barring extreme economic deprivation, is in principle precluded from becoming a developmental agent. Developmental agency may simply take the form, for instance, of the small space of “happiness” that the American actor carves out for herself, or even the necessary compromises–the middle ground between desire and lived reality–that makes her life at least tolerable, if not completely fulfilling. While we do not believe that everyone is equally agentic, we are arguing that virtually everyone has a certain restricted range or field of agentic potential. Some of us exceed the bounds of these fields, though rarely if ever by our own efforts alone, while others realize the potential to be agents from within. We must not, of course, gloss over the structural inequities that significantly shape human lives, but at the same time we must move beyond a victomology that continues to produce “falsely conscious,” acted-upon objects, who we further objectify through our rhetoric and our Foucaultian gaze (the paradox of poststructuralism).

Now we can return to the question of sexual taxonomy. We agree with Steven Seidman (1993, p. 134) that sexual systems of classification are “self-limiting and oppressive,” but also “personally, socially and politically enabling,” and we would like to see this dual nature reflected in discussions of subjectivity and agency. Only within necessarily limiting social and cultural fields of being and doing–which is precisely what a sexual lifeway is–can we fashion and refashion ourselves. Newer modes of being and doing represent not a clean break from older modes, but rather an overflowing of their boundaries–an excess of meaning that has coalesced into a largely distinct but nevertheless overlapping field (thus “gay and lesbian” lifeways emerged from “homosexual” ones). Any taxonomy of sexual lifeways must therefore be embedded within a given cultural and historical context. As a cultural and historical map, then, we can think of a given taxonomy of sexual lifeways as providing a broad outline for social and self-construction, across space and time, within a given sexual culture.

Whether or not taxonomies necessarily produce an excluded other, as queer theory contends, remains an open, empirical question. Without invoking a dubious narrative of inevitable human progress, it could certainly by argued that the history of homoerotic expression in the contemporary Western world (that is, starting in the late-nineteenth century) has trended, at least in certain ways, toward increasing social and political agency for the homoerotically inclined actor. In this view, queer is part of an historical process that may or may not result in the demise of a “gay” or “homosexual” other (that is, in the disappearance of sexual “object choice” as a salient dimension of social categorization). If and when this occurs, new dimensions of gender, sexual, and other forms of difference may well become salient, launching another set of historical processes. Regardless, sexual taxonomies–as cultural and historical objects–provide a necessary starting point for the study of sexual subjectivity and agency across the life course.

The lives of the current generation of older gay men and lesbians, who came of age prior to Gay Liberation, provide a particularly compelling example of these historical, cultural, and developmental processes. The subjectivities of these men and women–caught between the historical and epistemological regimes of the “closet homosexual” and the “out, loud, and proud” gay man or lesbian–illuminate important dimensions of the dynamic relationship between culturally patterned sexual lifeways and individual life histories. This includes the ways in which sexual lifeways both limit and enable the articulation of experience and the expression of developmental agency across the course of life (for some non-Western examples, see Herdt, 1997a, or Herdt and Stoller’s [1990] case study of a Sambia “rubbish man”). Given the stigma attached to the very being of the closet homosexual, and the severe expressive limitations this type of lifeway imposed on the individual with homoerotic desires, it would seem only “rational”–assuming the empty vessel actor of poststructuralism–for such an identity to be immediately and completely discarded in the wake of the new discursive possibilities opened up by the Gay Liberation movement. Of course, this is not what happened. In fact, as Grube (1991) illustrates in his ethnographic account of intergenerational interactions in Toronto following the advent of the Gay Liberation movement, many of the older men clung tenaciously to cherished–if seemingly oppressive–ideas about what it means to be “gay.”

We must not dismiss this historical phenomenon as a particular manifestation of an inevitable and ubiquitous “generation gap.” We contend that the inability and/or unwillingness of older gays and lesbians to completely reject the “epistemology of the closet” (Sedgwick, 1991) signals a deeper developmental subjectivity, forged both within and around the cultural template provided by the “closet homosexual.” As part of a pilot project in Chicago, we have collected life histories from approximately thirty gay men over the age of thirty-five (see Hostetler and Cohler, 1997; Cohler, Hostetler, and Boxer, 1998).(4) As these interviews demonstrate, the lifeway of the “closet homosexual” provided the symbolic and material field within which the self-definitional efforts of an older generation of gay men were made both possible and difficult. If being a developmental agent sometimes necessitated moving beyond the narrow confines of this historical sexual culture, it also precluded the possibility of leaving it entirely behind.

The life-history narratives of long-term same-sex couples, because they defy cultural stereotypes about homosexuality, are particularly interesting in this regard. For example, Tony and Peter(5)–a couple for the last thirty-five years–define and describe their relationship at least partially in opposition to what it means to them to be “gay.”(6) In discussing early adulthood, Peter said that he “never had the opportunity [to run around] when I was gay,” by which, he later clarified, he meant “single.” Similarly, Tony appears unable to think about himself as both gay and not single when responding to questions about life insurance, wills, and so on: “No, I don’t have life insurance. As a single person I didn’t feel I really needed it.” And Peter attributes the longevity of their relationship to the fact that they distanced themselves from “gayness”:

Well I think, I think that relationships for gays, there’s

always temptation there, you know …. And I don’t know, I

just feel that staying away from bars and sort of the business

of the gayness and the gay life, you know [emphasis his]. And

I see that many others in our situation that I didn’t know at

the time, have done the same. You know. I don’t say we are

dropouts [from the gay community], `cause we never ever

were [involved]. But the normal type of things that other

people went for, we didn’t [emphasis added].

However, at the same time they find it difficult to think of themselves as both gay and a couple, they are reluctant to embrace new meanings and new ways to be gay that might allow for this symbolic pairing. Thus, although they acknowledge that things have changed for the better, both within and outside of the lesbian and gay community, they continue, for the most part, to avoid contact with the “out” gay world. Most of their gay friends are also coupled, and both men maintain relatively close relationships with their families of origin, to whom they have never formally disclosed their homosexuality or the specificities of their relationship (although most of their family members seem to know). Tony also resisted getting to know two gay coworkers who were a little too “nellie.” In his own words: “I would say that I’m more of a closet type, and I have no interest in making it open. I just couldn’t get involved in doing that.” Thus, while they were clearly affected by negative stereotypes about “homosexuals,” and while their own life together flies in the face of many of these stereotypes, they remain uninterested in embracing new forms of “gay” agency that might better articulate their experience. They seem to accept the necessary compromises of the closet and its inevitably restricted set of life choices as the price for expressing their homoerotic feelings.

This does not mean, however, that Tony and Peter are merely victims or relics of a more homophobic time. They have managed to carve out a very happy and fulfilling existence for themselves, particularly given the obstacles they confronted. What might now be considered Tony’s “internalized homophobia” seems less reactive in the context of the life choices he felt faced him:

I think an individual has to know what type of life he wants

to lead. And after getting out and knowing I was totally gay,

and knowing what gay life consisted of at the time, I knew

that I didn’t want to live just a totally out and out gay life.

And in constructing their life together, both men–under strong normative pressures to marry and raise a family–demonstrated remarkable agency. Both men reflected on their sometimes conflicting life-desires, and the choices they eventually made:

Peter:… and that’s when you wind up thinking that, gee,

if I keep doing this, you know, I’ll never be married, I’ll

never have kids. And then you think, well, is that all so bad.

I mean the reasonable thing would be, you know, get married

and have kids. You know, that’s the reasonable thing. I

think you have a much easier life. But, uh, you end up

doing the way you feel.

Tony: I knew that I didn’t want to get married, to a

female …. As I became older, I felt that it would be nice–and

this was something, before I’d been to a gay bar and

knew that people were gay–I always thought that it would

be nice to be able to know somebody and live with them in

the closet.., that was something that was in my mind that

I thought would be very nice, without realizing that that was

taking place all the time [emphasis in original].

The men see one important life decision, in particular, as having been essential to their success as a couple: twenty-five years prior, they purchased a house, which they spent years of weekends and vacations remodeling together. Peter refers to it as a “fantastic glue” in their relationship. In general, both men express a deep sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, if not absolute fulfillment, in their lives together. In Tony’s words:

I think I’ve been able to reach expectations. I’ve always

wanted to have a nice home, an apartment, and have nice

furnishings …. I’ve always been able to do most of the traveling

that I want to do. I think those were expectations that,

in reflection, I’ve been very successful in obtaining.

Thus, although their chosen lifeway foreclosed many possibilities, not the least of which was the open and public expression of their relationship, it opened a wide enough passage for them to imagine and realize a happy life together. Of course, their status as white, middle-class men afforded them many opportunities not necessarily available to their female, nonwhite, and/or working-class contemporaries with same-sex desires, and we believe that an understanding of the various structural constraints on individual development is indispensable. This is not to say that there haven’t been historically other kinds of expressive opportunities for lesbians and working class and nonwhite gay men, as Kennedy (1993), Chauncey (1994), and others have demonstrated. The larger point is that all sexual lives reflect varying degrees of compromise between sometimes conflicting desires and the social and cultural avenues for their expression. Only by examining the relevant taxonomies within a sexual culture can we come to know what these avenues are, and only by studying the individual lives embedded within can we arrive at a deeper understanding of subjectivity and agency.


Any consideration of sexual taxonomy, we believe, must aim at the restoration of subjects and agents to their rightful place in cultural study. The approach outlined in this paper may be interpreted by some as an attempt to defuse the radical potential of queer to disrupt sexual taxonomy, or to force a square peg into the round hole of a normativizing structure. This is not our intention. As we have argued, queerness is already situated within a cultural and historical process that continues to produce sexual taxonomy as a precondition for meaningful engagement with the social order. Although “queer” may eventually change the rules and relevant dimensions of the sexual naming game, much as third sex and gender categories have done in other times and places (Herdt, ed., 1994), the important questions that queer theory raises–whether or not taxonomic systems necessarily produce an excluded other, whether or not sexual “object choice” will continue to be the primary axis of sexual classification, and so on–remain provocative, but largely unanswered. Nevertheless, queer theory has done much to influence the historical process that will eventually answer these questions, and the queer social vision–if at times overly idealistic–belongs to a long and illustrious tradition in the social sciences, dating back at least to Marx.

Indeed, social theory often derives from utopian visions. However, we continue to believe that social and cultural investigation should not only envision a more perfect world, but should also illuminate the imperfect world we currently live in and its imperfect inhabitants, queer and otherwise. The problem with Marxism (and perhaps also its greatest strength) was, after all, the reduction of complex historical processes and socially and culturally embedded actors to a simple equation that did justice to neither. Reinserting a rich account of cultural lifeways and individual agency is imperative to late-modern cultural study. The lives of sexual minorities, and the cultural and historical forces that produce them, have been particularly vulnerable to partial representation–in both senses of the term–in the history of the social sciences. This is now being remedied, but slowly. Future efforts to portray the lives of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, queers, transgendered individuals, and others (including, by the way, heterosexuals) must address the various forces, desires, and inevitable contradictions that shape human development in all its vital contexts. Unpacking taxonomy and “regimes of the normal” is the necessary starting place for this project, but where critique ends, further social investigation must begin.


(1) By “personhood” we mean here the Maussian sense of the symbolic person, socially defined by the rights and duties of the esteemed adult agent.

(2) Given that many of these objections and challenges have come from within, it is perhaps more accurate and appropriate to speak of queer theories–a diverse set of lesbian/gay/queer-inflected critical strategies and practices that continue to evolve through the vital engagement of a wide array of scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Of course, many of its critics do not consider themselves to be doing queer theory at all.

(3) We are not using teleology (or ontology) in a strict Aristotelian sense; local theories of what it means to be and become a full person may or may not be grounded in essentialist assumptions.

(4) Bertram J. Cohler, Ph.D., served as the principle investigator for this project, and we thank him for his permission to cite the following case material.

(5) Tony and Peter were interviewed separately in November, 1995.

(6) Many older men who came of age well prior to Gay Liberation nevertheless adopted much of its language and discourse (for example, gay, coming out, and so on). However, as our interviews revealed, there appear to be marked cohort differences in the subjective meanings of commonly used “gay” terms.


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