Review of Construction of Homosexuality.

by David F. Greenberg
Book Reviewed
Book Title
Construction of Homosexuality.
Book Author
David F. Greenberg
Book Publisher
Univ.Chicago P.
Place of Publication
Book Review Citation
Review Author
Warren Lee Holleman
Journal of the American Academy of Religion
Select License
August 9th, 2012

digmatic structures of Christianity, but it is we who have created and sustained them in our encounter with divinity amidst our prelinguistic reality. No study, including religious studies, is neutral, for it depends upon our committed engagement with the whole of reality in and beyond our particular imaging of it through our bodily and historically situated paradigms. This religious imagina- tion which expresses aspects of the ultimate whole is not the "theo-logic" rep- resentation of an absent object but the "theo-poetic" evocation of Presence.

While Green has discussed Coleridge's definition of imagination and criti- cized McFague's metaphorical theology, he has not recognized them as part of a major modem tradition of the creative, reality-bearing imagination which runs from Boehme and Coleridge down to Stevens, Eliot, Heideger, Hopper, Scott, Wilder, Hart, and Ricoeur. Since he does not address this tradition he does not find kinship of the religious imagination with feminist and liberation theology's attack on the underlying dualism of the "critical" paradigm as patriarchal and unjust domination by a part claiming to be the God-given whole, nor wrestle with the recognition that where objective form is stressed the inchoate or unheard longings of the oppressed and their contributions to the making of public gestalts are denied.

Green's book not only presents, interestingly, a neo-orthodox appropriation of this important theme of the religious imagination, but by attempting to join it with gestalt psychology and paradigm shifts opens up unwittingly the possibil- ity of fruitful dialogue between these critical and postcritical paradigms, and their divergent social visions, at tension implicitly within his work.

R. Melvin Keiser Guilford College

The Construction ofHomosexualily. By David F. Greenberg. University of Chicago Press, 1988. N.P.

David Greenberg's The Construction of Homosemali~provides a detailed, well-researched history of homosexuality, both in terms of sexual practices and of the attitudes of the society-at-large, from ancient and tribal societies to the present. This sociologist also provides a simple yet profound theory to explain the wide variety of sexual expressions between cultures and eras: that the way we act sexually and otherwise is limited to the customs and practices of the culture in which we live. Stated negatively, there is no such thing as homosexu- als as an abiding and universal category of being. There are instead a wide variety of sexual behaviors, some involving same-sex relationships. But those in ancient and tribal societies who engage(d) in same-sex sexual relations (most commonly pederasty or transgenderal homosexual relations in which one part- ner dresses and acts like the other sex) have no more in common with, say, contemporary American gays than American gays with American heterosexuals. In many of the ancient and tribal societies relationships are transgenerational and nonexclusive, whereas American homosexuals generally pair with partners of a similar age and do not openly vacillate between spouse and same-sex part- ner. Thus, it is not appropriate to use the term "homosexual" to refer to people outside of modem, Westem culture. Until the modem era, "involvement in homosexual relations did not become the basis for self-identification" (330).

Unlike John Boswell, Greenberg is not concerned primarily with homosex- uality vis-a-vis Judaism and Christianity. Yet much of the book does address this issue. Contra popular belief, Greenberg shows that the ancient Hebrews did not condemn homosexuality per se but rather (homosexual and heterosexual) rape, prostitution, and sexual relations with slaves. The Hebrews particu- larly abhorred the cult prostitution of their neighbors. The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, Greenberg points out, was not homosexuality but inhospitality (135-141).

Did the ancient Christian church condemn homosexuality? Only indirectly, according to Greenberg. The church condemned nonprocreative sex in any and all forms (277). Thus sodomy referred not only to homosexual relations but also to heterosexual relations, even those between husbands and wives, for pleasure rather than the begetting of children. This is still the official position of the Roman Catholic Church. Greenberg suggests that those who condemn homosexual relations on the basis of church tradition must, if they are consis- tent, condemn all forms of sexual activity except that intended for reproductive purposes. According to the traditional view, two men engaging in consensual sex commit a sin, but no graver sin than a husband and wife using a condom.

In a similar manner Greenberg shows that many other supposed past con- demnations of homosexuality were only condemnations of particular forms of homosexuality. The strong condemnations in the late Middle Ages referred to the lifestyle of luxury and pleasure-seeking of the aristocracy who engaged in flamboyant homosexual behavior, which the emerging middle class found anti- thetical to their work ethic. Through much of history homosexual activity has been condoned or tolerated by the society-at-large, but even when it has not, Greenberg observes, most of those burned at the stake or thrown in jail have been punished not for engaging in sex with a same-sex partner but for threaten- ing the social order. Lesbian women were seldom persecuted until they assumed male identities, roles, and occupations; when Joan of Arc dressed as a man, she was perceived as a threat, as one who appropriated male power (293, 315, 331,428). Greenberg cites numerous examples, from the Vandals to pres- ent-day Cuba, in which men were caught copulating but only the one assuming the receptive position was viewed as abnormal and punished (244, 442). The penetrator was viewed as normal, but for a man to assume the female role was perceived as a threat to the natural and social order.

In addition to dispelling myths about traditional values and premodern atti- tudes toward homosexuality, Greenberg shows that many current problems are rooted in centuries-old debates and practices. He states, for example, that "the elimination of heterosexual outlets for priests could only have fostered the development of homoerotic feelings" (283). This statement is made not in ref- erence to the current prevalence of homosexual relations among Roman Catho- lic priests, but in a chapter on "Feudalism." Greenberg explains how the reforms of the late Middle Ages-in which priests were required to abandon their wives and take vows of celibacy-led them toward homosexuality: "in some people . . . the psychological need for such [emotionally intimate] rela- tionships is stronger than the orientation toward partners of a particular sex" (283). In reading such discussions one becomes aware of the roots of contem- porary ecclesiastical problems and of the parochial attitude we modems often maintain about the uniqueness of our era.

Despite these many virtues, the book is not without its shortcomings. Sometimes Greenberg's explanations for changes in attitudes or behaviors become too enmeshed in longstanding sociolog~cal debates and are not suffi- ciently rooted in historical reality. According to Greenberg, the negative atti- tudes toward homosexuality in the modem era should be blamed on the rise of capitalism, modem science, and bureaucracies. With regard to capitalism: "The competitiveness instilled in boys through parental upbringing, as well as through direct participation in a competitive market economy, would have tended to discourage the acceptance of emotionally intimate relationships between men" (359). Never mind that the flourishing of homosexuality in ancient Greece is often associated with the competition on the athletic field, that Horatio Alger, who created the myth of competitive capitalism, was himself a homosexual, or that the present era of gay liberation parallels the period in which competitive capitalism is perceived as reaching its zenith. Although Greenberg qualifies by saying that "the further development of capitalism in the decades following World War I1 has moderated those beliefs and attitudes" (3471, he does not specify the developments that had such a moderating influ- ence or justify his assumption that these developments, whatever they were, were a cause and not an effect.

Greenberg makes a similar sweeping claim in his discussion of sexual ascet- icism in the ancierit world, in which he attributes the rise of negative sexual attitudes to, among other things, the growth of kingdoms and empires: "The larger scale of politics in the kingdoms and empires reduced popular participa- tion in public affairs, giving rise to political estrangement from government, passivity, feelings of helplessness, and psychological withdrawal from the world. One consequence of this disengagement was a repudiation of bodily pleasures and desires" (185). Rather than justifying this statement, Greenberg proceeds to discuss sexual attitudes and practices in the various kingdoms, from Iran to the late Roman empire. His justification is probably buried in the his- torical detail, but as a reader of a six-hundred page book I would have preferred more explicit, accessible information.

Sometimes the author's biases result in a misleading presentation of the data. In discussing Mayan, Inca, and Aztec beliefs and practices (163-1681, Greenberg begins by asserting that homosexuality was widely practiced and tolerated, and by presenting vast evidence to support the claim. Only later is the reader informed that these societies viciously tortured and executed those caught engaging in homosexual practices, and that accounts of widespread homosexuality (presumably the ones Greenberg quoted at the outset of the dis- cussion) were fabricated or exaggerated by conquistadors who wished to por- tray native Americans as subhuman beasts in order to justify their plunder and slaughter to European benefactors.

In an apparent effort to rescue modem homosexuals from the image of being members of the social and economic elite, Greenberg states that "scat- tered evidence suggests that casual involvement in male homosexual relations and a comfortable acceptance of same-sex physical contact were characteristic of nineteenth-century British working-class life" (453). Several of the anec- dotes Greenberg then goes on to cite as "scattered evidence" refer to working class youths who traded sex for money during times of economic hardship. Such practice actually reinforces the stereotype of nineteenth- and early twenti- eth-century homosexuals as social and economic elitists, since the working class youths did not assume the identity of homosexuals but rather functioned in this role as a temporary means of adaptation and survival. In the next chap- ter Greenberg contradicts his earlier position when answering the question of why contemporary Protestant fundamentalists have rallied around homosexual- ity and other sex and gender issues. One reason, he says, is that despite the recent upward mobility of its members, fundamentalism is nevertheless rooted in worhng-class values and attitudes (472). In Greenberg's defense, there may be significant differences between American and European working class atti- tudes. It appears, however, that Greenberg jumps too quickly to easy answers when dealing with tough questions without considering the inner consistency of the overall monograph.

Given the length, compass, and ambitious nature of the book, these criti- cisms should be viewed as relatively minor shortcomings of a masterpiece that is otherwise a major contribution to history, sociology, and the history of reli- gion. The Construction ofHomosemality takes us beyond the genes versus envi- ronment debate and to a more important consideration of sexual attitudes and practices from the beginning of recorded history to the present, and expands the discussion from East to West and North to South. Rather than asking "Which factors influence a person's becoming a homosexual or a heterosex- ual?" Greenberg shows that these categories are not relevant to most of recorded history and instead asks the more practical questions, "Which types of sexual expression are commonly practiced in particular cultural and temporal settings?" and "Which factors shape the attitudes and practices of the various cultures?" Now that Greenberg has assembled this important information and analysis, this reviewer will be prone to distrust any future theologian, ethicist, or ecclesiast who philosophizes about human sexuality or judges the morality of sexual behavior unless (s)he makes copious references to The Construction of Homosexuality.

Warren Lee Holleman Baylor College of Medicine 

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